Prior to the holidays, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner found himself in a strange place – onstage at a farm policy conference sitting between two of agriculture’s biggest opponents: EWG and Heritage.
Unsurprisingly, demands to rip holes in the farm safety net and mandate new government regulations were made. It was an uncomfortable spot for an aggie indeed, but Conner defended agriculture fiercely and effectively against attack.
“Farmers and ranchers and the people of rural America, believe me, feel like they have been under attack over the past several years…these attacks range from the heavy hand of the EPA to unfounded criticism from consumers,” he explained. “I believe it has had a huge impact in how they responded in the last presidential election.”
And that kind of “grass roots populism in rural America,” he said, will be vital to maintaining a strong farm policy in the future.
“If agriculture groups are successful in unifying themselves and tapping into this this powerful rural advocacy, then folks, I honestly do not expect, in all due respect, organizations such as the ones that are part of this panel, to have a huge impact on the next Farm Bill debate or on farm policy,” Conner explained.
“If we are divided…then these respective organizations will be successful in altering significant sections of the Farm Bill, including farm payments, payment limits, crop insurance, [and the] sugar program, just to name a few.”
And when it comes to crop insurance the critics were already making a case for weakening farmers’ most important risk management tool by excluding some farms from participation. In response, Conner delivered a lesson in the realities of insurance.
“You cannot have an actuarially sound insurance program… if you exclude large portions of agriculture that are more likely to not collect,” he noted.
Conner continued: “For good sound crop insurance, you need to spread it over all producers, all regions and all crops in order to limit [agricultural] risk. It doesn’t work, in my opinion, just to start saying we are going to lop off whole chunks of American agriculture…you’re only going to hurt everybody by creating a program that can’t stand on its own.”
Keeping crop insurance whole and protecting other key policies in the upcoming Farm Bill, he said, will be particularly important given today’s struggling farm economy
“[Farm] loans are being very, very carefully reviewed,” Conner explained, adding, “lenders do not handle risk well” and “uncertainty will eat [farmers] alive with their bankers.”
Getting a Farm Bill done in a timely fashion and keeping risk management tools in place are the best ways to overcome these challenges.
“Every time there is uncertainty, whether it is crop insurance, whether it is one of the [other farm] programs,” he concluded, “the lender has to sharpen that pencil more, and the margin between what they can lend, and what equity that farmer has, gets wider and wider.”
One thing that is for certain: crop insurance and the agricultural community have a great friend in Chuck Conner. Let’s just hope his fellow panelists were paying attention.