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Keep Crop Insurance Out of the Crosshairs

Wisconsin AgConnection | December 2015

The passage of the 2014 Farm Bill was the beginning of a new chapter in U.S. farm policy, putting to rest most of the old farm support programs and replacing them with a reformed farm safety net and its centerpiece: Crop insurance.

Unlike farm programs of the past, only farmers who purchase crop insurance enjoy its protection. In fact, when a farmer purchases crop insurance, they are handed a bill, not a check. Crop insurance is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, with farmers paying tens of thousands of dollars per year on premiums for policies that most of them will hopefully not need.

The Farm Bill was a grand compromise. In exchange for $23 billion in spending cuts programs, Congress required market-oriented reforms to commodity programs and made a five-year commitment to ensure the affordability, availability and viability of crop insurance. Unfortunately, anti-farmer groups are targeting crop insurance with proposed cuts that would seriously hamstring the private sector delivery that is the hallmark of success for the program. That would not only threaten to make the system unworkable for farmers, but also endanger the reliability of our nation’s food supply.

Farmers and farm groups value crop insurance because it combines the efficiency of the private sector with the universal coverage of the public sector. Today, virtually any farmer who wants to purchase crop insurance can, and here in Wisconsin, farmers spent roughly $86 million out of their own pockets to do so this year alone. Nationally, that number usually exceeds $4 billion annually.

Remember the historic drought of 2012 that threatened the nation’s heartland and was compared to the dreadful days of the great Dust Bowl? In the past, a disaster of that magnitude would have triggered an overly expensive and completely taxpayer-funded disaster bill. And although those funds were appreciated, they could take months or years to arrive, oftentimes too late to stop a foreclosure.

Things have changed dramatically now that farmers have much improved access to crop insurance, which now protects more than 90 percent of planted cropland. When the drought laid siege to the nation’s heartland, private sector crop insurance adjusters were quickly on the scene, and indemnity checks were usually in the hands of farmers who had verifiable losses in weeks, not months.

Crop insurance worked so well in 2012 that the nation’s farmers bounced back the next year and produced an enormous bounty of grains. And there wasn’t a single call for a disaster bill.

Farmers are the engines that drive the economy of rural America, and without a sufficient safety net in place – like crop insurance – that entire equation is at risk. That is why not only farmers, but ranchers, input suppliers, processors, and equipment companies have all called on Congress to protect crop insurance from any further cuts.

As a farmer, I can tell you that I take great pride in what I do and I understand the important role I play in producing the nation’s food, fiber, feed, and fuel supply. It seems that farmers and consumers alike here in Wisconsin need to remind our congressional delegation of this fact as well.

Tom Gillis is president of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.  This op-ed appeared in Wisconsin AgConnection on December 3, 2015

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Crop Insurance Helps Farmers and Ag Lenders Manage Risk

Abilene Reflector-Chronicle | November 2015

Weather anomalies have challenged farmers since the earliest days of agriculture. A flood, hail storm or drought can leave a farmer without a harvestable crop at the end of the season. In Central Kansas, producers have been fortunate in the fact that they have not had to endure multiple years of drought or poor production. However, neighboring areas such as Southwest Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas and areas further west have not been so lucky. There is no doubt that crop insurance has helped some farmers stay in business through the tough times.

The United States has learned in hindsight that providing retroactive disaster relief is not only destabilizing for farmers but expensive for taxpayers. Prior to our current crop insurance system, it could have taken months if not years for farmers to receive relief payments following a disaster. While the support did not go unnoticed, there were many instances when the payments came too late to save a farmer from insolvency.

It is a fact that strong farm policy and support for crop insurance goes beyond the farmer, not only benefitting rural America but consumers as well. In the 2014 Farm Bill, crop insurance was recognized as the primary risk management tool for farmers, shifting a good share of the risks associated with farming away from the American taxpayer.

The key to a viable crop insurance system is the public-private partnership that makes it the success it has been. The private sector sells and services crop insurance policies and farmers pay premiums and have deductibles, just like other insurance policies. To incentivize farmers to buy crop insurance, the government partially discounts premiums to ensure that coverage is affordable, available to everyone, and economically viable.

Lenders also play a role in encouraging farmers to make informed decisions about managing their operating risk. At Central National Bank, we are agriculture lenders as well as licensed crop insurance agents. We encourage all of our farmer customers to protect their investment with crop insurance and as a financial institution, we may even be able to offer better loan terms to a producer that implements a solid risk management program.

It is important to keep in mind that crop insurance is a risk management tool, not a profit center. Some have charged that farmers would rather collect a crop insurance check than a good harvest.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Simple math suggests that “playing the crop insurance game” is not a sustainable business plan. In 10 years of working with producers, I’ve yet to meet anyone who would rather collect a crop insurance check than harvest a good crop.  

 As we enter into a period of declining margins, it will be important for producers to review all aspects of their operation, including risk management programs.  Recently, the farm economy has seen double-digit declines in net farm income as well as increases in the number of short-term operating loans. Having access to viable risk management tools will not necessarily add to the bottom line, but it is important for producers to utilize tools such as crop insurance to protect revenue streams through a possible prolonged downturn in the farm economy.

Not only does a well thought-out crop insurance plan speak to a producer’s management skills, but crop insurance also provides a backstop so producers are able to meet their financial obligations. Ensuring farmers have access to affordable, viable crop insurance options is not only critical for the farm business, but it will certainly impact future ag lending decisions in terms of assessing operating risk for loans.

Aaron Gasper is an agriculture and commercial lender at Central National Bank in Salina, Kansas.

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If my family had kept the farm, I would have been a fourth-generation farmer of a grain operation. But they couldn’t.

The ’80s were not kind to us, and my family made the difficult decision to exit the business. They were not alone. Some statistics show public farm auctions numbered around 500 a month during the darkest days of the decade, with hundreds of thousands of farmers defaulting on their loans. Nearly 2,000 banks failed or received assistance through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation between 1980 and 1994, which is more than any other period since the FDIC was created.

Watching my family and neighbors go through this kind of torment made an impression. It’s one of the reasons I am passionate about what I do today. It is a high priority for me as an agricultural banker to do everything I can—not only as a provider of capital and traditional banking products, but a provider of expertise and counsel—to help farmers make the right decisions about their operations. I want them to be prepared for a crisis.

Fortunately, for farmers today there are more tools available to manage the risky business of farming than there were a few decades ago. One of those tools is crop insurance, which has improved significantly through the years to become one of the key pieces of the farm safety net. Farmers have to invest so much money to grow a crop that they rely on banks for operating loans. Banks would have a hard time making those loans without assurance farmers would have a way to pay it back if a natural disaster struck. Crop insurance enables everyone—from the farmer to the banker—to plan for those disasters.

Additionally, crop insurance is structured in such a way that spreads risk across a large and diverse pool of participants so that the impact of losses from a disaster is minimized. That’s because it is widely available and affordable for producers all across the country regardless of their farm size. Without this kind of farm safety net for all of our farmers, large production losses could set in motion a series of events reminiscent of the 1980s when farms failed and banks were stressed to the point of shutting down.

Therefore, it’s critical crop insurance remain intact. Something that seems harder and harder to do in today’s political environment where opponents are determined to destroy the one thing farmers can count on during tough times.

We saw their work in full force during the latest budget agreement that was negotiated at the last minute and included cuts to crop insurance. Thankfully, the agricultural community responded in equal force and demanded the cuts be reversed. Lawmakers are expected to address this provision in the next omnibus spending bill.

We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past where harsh economic conditions combined with an inadequate safety net caused producers to leave the farm altogether. Right now, we have farm policy in place that encourages sound risk management practices and helps farmers to position themselves for the future.

In the midst of the crisis as he signed the 1985 farm bill, President Ronald Reagan said, “This country is nothing without the farmer, and those who work the land have the right to know that there’s a future in farming. Their children have the right to know that they’ll still be able to work the family farm generations from now and make a decent living.”

By then it was too late for my family and countless others to continue farming, but if we’re smart, we’ll learn the hard lessons from the past so future generations can continue.

Indeed, we are nothing without farmers. And, they can’t survive the vagaries of the business without sound farm policy.

Nate Franzen is the President of the Agribusiness Division at First Dakota National Bank in South Dakota. He has worked in agricultural banking for more than two decades. 

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As someone who has spent more than four decades managing a fourth-generation farm and the past 10 years building my family’s crop insurance agency, I believe I have valuable perspective worth sharing regarding how essential today’s federal crop insurance policies are to America’s farmers and consumers.

Specifically, I would like to explain how essential the Harvest Price Option has become to the modern agricultural producer.  The Harvest Price Option insures a crop at its actual harvest-time value. Think of it like a homeowner’s insurance policy. If your home appreciates in value after you purchase it, you are protected at the home’s current value if it burns down and you have to rebuild.

Unfortunately for agriculture, this policy that makes rebuilding possible has come under fire from those who misunderstand the unique risks for farmers who are constantly exposed to the ravages of Mother Nature. It is important to note that farmers pay an additional premium for this type of protection and it supports their risk management in two distinct ways.

First, a farmer often prices a large percentage of his anticipated – or before harvest – crop using forward price contracts with a local elevator. If a natural disaster strikes causing production to fall short of the quantity sold, the farmer would need to purchase enough of the crop to fulfill his contractual obligation. But, the price of the commodity is likely to have increased because of the overall drop in production due to the disaster. Consequently, the remaining crop available to purchase is priced much higher than what was covered under the spring contract.

By purchasing the Harvest Price Option as part of his crop insurance policy, the farmer is able to meet his contractual obligations either by buying grain to deliver under the contract or by making a financial settlement with the purchaser.

A second way the Harvest Price Option becomes essential to producers is if the grain being produced is intended to support the farm’s future animal feed needs. If a natural disaster destroys the grain that is to be harvested, then the producer will be forced to purchase feed instead.  If there is a widespread short crop, the feed costs will be much higher.  With the Harvest Price Option on the producer’s crop insurance policy, the farmer will be paid the actual harvest price on his lost production.  This, in turn, allows him to purchase the feed needs for his livestock operation and still maintain a viable business.

In fact, allowing farmers to maintain a viable business when the unexpected happens is what crop insurance is all about.  The beneficiary is not just the farmer, but also the American consumer. Crop insurance enables farm families like mine to pick up the pieces after a disaster and continue to produce food and fiber without significant price increases or supply shortages for consumers. The fact that Americans spend less of their disposable income for food than any other country speaks volume as to how critical it is that farmers have risk management tools like crop insurance.  The critics would do well to try to understand the link between a viable crop insurance program and an affordable, stable food supply before proposing measures that would destroy it. In other words, before biting the hand that feeds them.

Gary Riekhof is a farmer and crop insurance agent from Higginsville, Missouri.  This op-ed appeared in the Columbia Tribune on June 6, 2015.

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“Frost threatens northern U.S. corn; rains soak southern Plains.”

This recent headline says it all. The diversity of American agricultural production coupled with the varied growing conditions across the country and the swings in weather explains why farmers need a safety net. More importantly, it describes why crop insurance is the centerpiece of the farm safety net.

U.S. multi-peril crop insurance is a risk management tool that farmers, regardless of their location, crop, or production method, purchase to protect against the loss of their crops due to natural disasters such as hail, drought, freezes, floods, fire, disease, or the loss of revenue due to a decline in price. Farmers buy policies to fit the individual needs of the their operations. In 2014, 1.2 million policies were sold protecting more than 120 different crops covering 294 million acres.

I have been farming corn and soybeans for about three decades and I have always purchased crop insurance because it gives me some peace of mind even though we are in a climate setting that typically doesn’t experience wide weather extremes like some of our neighbors in other parts of the country.

That’s not to say we haven’t been hit with our share of unpredictable weather that made planting and harvesting a crop challenging. It does mean I customize the policy I purchase to meet the needs of my operation.

For example, just two years ago, we had a hard time getting a crop in the ground because nine inches of snow blanketed the area on the second day of May, which is normally the time when we’re wrapping up the planting season. The soil was already soaked from a rainy spring season. That year we didn’t start planting until the middle of May and didn’t finish until the first week in June.

Late planting can potentially put a farmer in double jeopardy – not only are they expecting lower yields because of the delay in planting, but that crop is also vulnerable to frost around the autumn harvest time.

This was the first time in more than 20 years of farming that we planted corn in June – more than a third of our crop. It was also the first time we elected to take prevented planting provisions for roughly 5 percent of our acres as part of our crop insurance policy. Prevented planting provisions are designed to provide coverage when extreme weather conditions prevent a farmer from getting in the fields.

Crop insurance helped us cover some of the loss from that bad year. It made it manageable, which is why it’s an essential risk management tool for my farm and others like mine all across the country. The cost of growing crops has increased substantially. It wasn’t too long ago that it took about half of what it takes to grow an acre of corn. Because of these costs, a substantial crop loss would be a major financial setback for anyone. With crop insurance, we are able to level the highs and lows.

There have been a lot of changes to farm policy through the years to reflect the changing times, but given the diversity of agriculture in our country and the way crop insurance can be uniquely tailored to address disastrous conditions in an efficient and effective way, it should only be strengthened in the years to come.

Bruce Peterson is a farmer from Northfield and the president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. This op-ed appeared in The Hill on June 3, 2015.

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When the 2014 Farm Bill became law, it marked a pivotal moment in the history of U.S. farm policy.   The new Farm Bill eliminated direct payments and reduced some of the price support policies of the past in favor of expanding crop insurance, which allows farmers to purchase varying levels of protection for their crops.

Gone are the days when farmers got a check every year regardless of weather or market conditions. Gone are the days when large-scale natural disasters would trigger wildly expensive disaster bills aimed at helping farmers get back on their feet.  From here forward, farmers who want risk protection will receive a bill, not a check, when they sign on the dotted line every year.

This is a good thing for several reasons.  First, crop insurance ensures farmers have a risk management plan in mind early in the year.  In addition to that plan, they must put their money towards purchasing a crop insurance policy.  This is no small amount of money for many farmers, who in 2014 spent roughly $3.8 billion on crop insurance premiums.

All told, those policies protected 295 million acres of farmland valued at $129 billion.  Today, 90 percent of planted cropland is protected by federal crop insurance, which protects more than125 different varieties of crops in all 50 states.

The evolution to crop insurance has effectively moved risk management away from the public sector, funded exclusively by taxpayer dollars, and toward the private sector, where farmers and crop insurance companies help shoulder part of the cost of natural disasters.   This is good for taxpayers because it takes them off the hook for the entire bill when disaster strikes, good for farmers who must always keep their risk management plan in mind, and good for rural America because farmers are the engines that generate economic activity.

Crop insurance has been around since 1938, but it wasn’t until Congress decided to make it affordable and ubiquitous that farmers really began to sign up.   And when disaster struck – as it does nearly every year somewhere here in the Northwest – farmers turned to their crop insurance policy and their insurance company, not their member of Congress, for help.

The demographics of farming can be rather scary, with the age of the average age of the nation’s 3.2 million farm operators at 58 years old and rising daily.   For young and beginning farmers, access to affordable and reliable crop insurance is honestly a make-or-break issue.  For those just entering farming, the costs are high and their ability to sustain a loss is very limited.  For them, purchasing a crop insurance policy not only protects their crops, but their careers paths as well.

Crop insurance is very popular here in the Northwest, with farmers and ranchers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho spending more than $96 million out of their own pockets last year to purchase the peace of mind offered by crop insurance.  Those policies protect the region’s apples, potatoes, sugar beets and a long list of other crops from the ravages of Mother Nature and volatile market swings.

In the old days, farmers largely relied on disaster assistance from the federal government in times of crisis.  According to the Congressional Research Service, some forty-two ad hoc disaster assistance bills cost taxpayers $70 billion since 1989.

With access to affordable, available and viable crop insurance policies, farmers have the backstop they need to bounce back when our rapidly changing climate throws them a curve ball.  That’s good for farmers, good for consumers who eat their produce, and good for the rural economy, which is largely supported by local farmers and ranchers.

Kent Wright is president of Northwest Farmers Union.  This op-ed appeared in the Tri-City Herald on May 30, 2015.

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