Legislators considering significant cuts in farm program benefits, including slashing funding for federal crop insurance, would do well to think about how many farmers would have been ruined by last summer’s historic drought without an adequate crop insurance program.
As of February, 9, 2012, claims for 2011 crop losses in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma totaled $2.9 billion. That figure likely has risen since then.
On one hand, that big expenditure looks like a fat target for the budget axe; on the other, however, that figure represents thousands of farmers in hundreds of rural communities who would be out of business without those funds.
Many farmers across the Southwest say that without Federal Crop Insurance they would not be able to plant this spring. The drought of 2011 was devastating, the worst ever recorded for Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. No doubt other states set records for poor growing conditions as well.
Crop insurance, increasingly over the past few years, has become the primary safety net for farmers and ranchers across the country. Ad hoc disaster payments have all but disappeared as Congress grapples to rein in federal spending.
Farmers do receive some government assistance with crop insurance premium payments. Many policies would be unaffordable without that help. Even with the assistance, producers can insure only 65 percent to 70 percent of historic yields.
That leaves them on the hook for more than 30 percent of what they would typically make from a crop in an average production year. So, at best, during a disaster as devastating as the 2011 drought farmers and ranchers are looking at a 30 percent cut in annual income. Few families could continue to make mortgage, car, and other payments with a 30 percent pay cut.
Another target of budget cutters is conservation programs, which also makes little sense. Last summer should have served as fair warning that conservation programs are essential to preserve soils and maintain air and water quality.
The photographs of massive dust clouds on the Texas High Plains as well as similar occurrences in Arizona and other sites in the Southwest remind us of photos we’ve seen of the Dust Bowl era, when thousands of acres of once fertile, productive cropland was lost because of poor conservation practices.
Natural resource stewardship is now a crucial component of most modern farms. Conservation programs that assist farmers and ranchers with terracing, waterways, irrigation efficiency and other important practices make the possibility of another Dust Bowl remote. New tillage systems, including no-till, strip-till and variations on those practices, help keep soil in place—out of the air and out of streams, lakes and ponds.
The Conservation Reserve Program, for which funding has already been cut, has helped remove fragile, highly erodible acreage from marginal crop production into valuable plots of timber and grassland. CRP has saved soil and created new habitat for wildlife. It has been a successful program.
Folks in agriculture understand the need for fiscal responsibility, for fiscal restraint. Most are frugal to begin with and would like to see government a bit more accountable as well. But they also understand that the nature of agriculture comes with risks and pitfalls that other industries do not face. Last year, for instance, record drought in the Southwest and devastating flooding in the Mid-South took huge tolls on farm income.
Natural disaster is part of the risk farmers face every year. But the nation’s ability to produce adequate food and fiber cannot be overstated. And the importance of the investment government can make to assure they have affordable insurance coverage and assistance with conserving natural resources cannot be over-emphasized. Cutting these two programs now would be foolhardy in light of what happened last summer.