TOPIC | SAFETY NET WHAT'S CROPPING UP


CROP INSURANCE IN ACTION: Andy Bell, Climax, Georgia

November 2012

tractors

On the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, you can chase a greased pig in the southwestern Georgia town of Climax as it celebrates its Swine Time Festival, which normally draws up to 30,000 people in an area where only 300 people live.

There is also corn shucking and a squeal-off. Climax is the highest point on the railroad line between Savannah and the Chattahoochee River. After its founding in the 1880s, the town served as a rail junction and an agricultural community. It was incorporated in 1905.

The weather for a farmer in Climax can be tricky. The town is located only a few dozen miles from the Gulf of Mexico which can bring in hurricanes as powerful as Katrina, which struck New Orleans with devastating fury in 2005. But this corner of southern Georgia has also been hit by a drought that rivals the one which hit this year in the U.S. Midwest, shriveling the cotton and peanuts that farmers grow in the area.

“We’re 90 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. We had a tropical storm come through in [20]09. We’re so close to the coast that we have to have some type of insurance,” said Andy Bell, who farms about 2,000 acres outside of town. On the other hand, “2007 was a terrible, dry year.”

“We buy crop insurance every year,” said Bell. “We typically buy 70 percent [of coverage]. You’re not going to make any money but it will prevent you from losing the farm.”

His main crops are peanuts, cotton and corn. Some 700 acres are sown to peanuts, about 1,100 acres to cotton and about 200 acres to corn. There is also a small herd of about 200 beef cattle.

Bell said there were some anxious moments before Hurricane Isaac veered away from their area a few months ago and headed for New Orleans. The storm season, which does not end until November 30, remains a threat, but the end to hurricane season is not far off.

For once, Bell is looking forward to harvest season as it looks like the weather is going to cooperate. “I think the peanut crop is going to be good this year. We dodged a bullet when the storm went the other way,” said Bell, who began farming in 1982.

The average yield for peanut farms would run around 1 to 3 tons per acre.

But just as Bell suspected, this year yields will be at record highs. USDA forecasts it at a record 3,714 pounds per acre, which would be 400 + pounds higher than last year.

Bell’s cotton crop is also in pretty good shape, with the Georgia farmer saying they may approach the yields of a few years ago when the harvest stood at 1,300 to 1,400 lbs an acre. That is pretty good considering the national average is about 800 pounds an acre.

His main problem though is the price of cotton. Since scaling a record high at $2.27 a pound in March 2011, cotton prices have shriveled and are now trading around $.75 a pound. “We have (had) a price collapse,” he said.

In good years and bad, Bell said crop insurance is indispensable simply because the weather in his area is so unpredictable. “It can rain here and then five miles down the road, you get no rain,” he said. Bell noted that crop insurance is ”not a fix-all,” but it gives farmers a chance to come back after a bad year.

For him, removing crop insurance is unthinkable. Banks and other lending institutions would not extend any credit to farmers if there is no safety net like crop insurance to give them some assurance that they will get part of their money back.

“I think it would be catastrophic,” Bell declared. “He [the American farmer] would be out of business. We’ve got to have some form of insurance.”