The affordability and bounty of the American food system did not occur by happenstance. It took wise policies supported by dedicated officials, hardworking farmers willing to risk their fortunes and a first-rate transportation and distribution system.
Many of the policies that underpin food production chiefly support the major food and feed commodities like corn, wheat and soybeans. But for those of us raising specialty crops – those fruits, vegetables and nuts that are an important part of our diet – there’s only one major risk management tool available: crop insurance.
Crop insurance is a public-private partnership whereby farmers purchase their own policies to cover the risks they choose to pay for. Michigan’s farmers face a huge amount of risk on a daily basis, including early frosts, drought, floods and market fluctuations. That’s why in 2012, farmers in this state paid $63 million to purchase policies to cover those risks.
Before crop insurance was widely available, natural disasters like the drought of 2012 would have triggered a massive, expensive ad hoc disaster bill in Congress that would have cost taxpayers dearly. In fact, 42 emergency disaster bills in agriculture have cost taxpayers $70 billion since 1989, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Last year, after a late spring freeze that destroyed the tree fruit crop followed by the worst drought in decades, there wasn’t a single large-scale outcry for help from Congress. The reason is that 86 percent of planted cropland was protected by crop insurance. Farmers put skin in the game and helped take some of the burden off of the taxpayers.
When disaster strikes a farmer, he needs help now. While every farmer appreciated the disaster bills of the past, they took a very long time to arrive – sometimes up to two years. For a farmer who has lost everything, two years might as well be 200 years.
Crop insurance is not without its critics. In fact, there are some in Washington, D.C. who, during last summer’s drought, claimed that farmers were praying for drought, not rain, implying they’d rather collect a crop insurance check than a harvest. To set the record straight, crop insurance is not cheap, and the nation’s farmers spent more than $4 billion in 2012 buying it. Most of them will spend that money without collecting an indemnity. In fact, in 2011, about two-thirds of the crop insurance policies purchased never collected an indemnity.
Michigan grows a wide variety of specialty crops each year, leading the nation in the production of several specialty crops, including dry beans, red tart cherries, blueberries, Niagara grapes and squash, making the state second only to California in the diversity of its crops.
In some ways, that abundance is a miracle, in other ways it is not. If it weren’t for hard work, investment, infrastructure and crop insurance to manage some of the major risks, Michigan’s horn of plenty might not be so full.
Steve Umlor is the president of Centennial Fruit in Conklin, Michigan. This op-ed appeared in the Lansing State Journal on May 12, 2013.