I’ve watched this spring as farmers anxiously checked wheat fields, some hoping to see evidence of yield potential from a drought-stressed crop and others who managed to nurse fields through the winter with fairly good production prospects only to suffer two hard freezes in March and April.
Estimates put both the Texas and Oklahoma wheat crops at about 50 percent of 2008. And those losses come on top of high production expenses last fall. Fuel and fertilizer, especially, pushed costs way beyond what most growers were accustomed to.
I haven’t talked to a wheat farmer since mid-April who had not lost some yield to either drought or freeze — or a deadly combination of the two. I saw some promising wheat in Northeast Texas back in late March. It was waist-high with good color and was just beginning to fill out heads.
Two weeks later it had turned an amber color, as if almost ready to cut. It wasn’t. Cold weather destroyed it. Some reports indicated that wheat fields with 80 bushel per acre yield potential in March would produce nothing by mid-April.
Farmers, somehow, take such losses in stride. They don’t like it; they understand the economic ramifications. But they know that potential loss comes with the territory. Farming is fraught with peril.
But many are finding this spring (and in springs, summers and falls before) that the biggest frustration, the worst cause for anxiety, and the most confounding aspect of farming may not have been the untimely freeze or the lack of rain that prevented growth all winter.
The real nightmare may begin as they try to collect crop insurance.
I’ve talked to several farmers who dreaded the prospect of jumping through the hoops necessary to file claims. I’ve talked to others who have been trying, often in vain, for months to settle up on losses from 2008.
Some are forced to harvest a crop that will cost more in fuel, labor and time than it’s worth, and then may receive far less than production costs from their insurance policy. In some cases, they have to plant a crop they know will not germinate in dust, and in the process, damage their soil and hamper air quality.
A few years ago, Northeast Texas farmers waited for a ruling on what was obviously a failed wheat crop, hoping to get answers in time to destroy the paltry plantings and get another crop in the ground ahead of insurance planting deadlines.
Farmers are limited from the outset to 80 percent of usual production or less. I can’t imagine my mortgage company allowing me to insure my house for 80 percent less than I owe on it — not good business for the bank or for me.
But I do know that if my house or car is totaled, I can count on reimbursement fairly soon after the fact. That doesn’t seem to be the case with farmers, who need the income for family expenses, debt payments and crop materials as soon as possible so they can keep farming. They sometimes wait months for adjustments.
Many are wary of how crop losses are assessed and concerned that county averages may not reflect reality.
Farmers need a good crop insurance program. The risks are too high to be without it. I don’t think anyone in government or crop insurance offices intentionally takes advantage of farm situations or tries to make the process harder than it should be. But the process often is harder than it should be and more time-consuming. Bureaucracy bedevils even the best of intentions.
Nothing about modern agriculture lends itself to simplicity. Everything a farmer uses is fairly expensive, complicated and necessary. The business side of agriculture has become more important than the labor side. Paperwork overwhelms many and with complex government programs, marketing plans and regulations, the task becomes oppressive.
And this year, add the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE) programs to the already complex mix and the fog gets thicker.
Crop insurance may never become simple, but it should be easier than it is for a farmer to benefit from a product he’s paid for.