Crop insurance reforms must protect farm safety net while also supporting new farmers: Amalie Lipstreu

The Plain Dealer, Amalie Lipstreu 6/28/2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In case you were living under a rock, the Trump administration has released its 2018 budget proposal.

According to President Donald Trump’s plan, farmers in the crop insurance program would still be able to count on the federal government to pay up to $40,000 of their crop insurance bill — after which they would be cut off.

This would save taxpayers $16.2 billion over a decade.

This is a difficult time for Ohio farmers. Farm products are selling low while the cost of inputs and property taxes are on the rise. Farming is never easy and is just shy of impossible when dealing with the vagaries of weather and wildly fluctuating market uncertainties. But we have deemed farming a pretty critical endeavor — as we depend on it for our survival.

Northeast Ohio farmers markets in Tremont and Shaker Square are featuring wine samples this year. The region’s farmers market population is holding strong.

For some farmers, crop insurance provides the stability to “weather” not just the weather but also the economic challenges they face.

As we head into negotiations for the next Farm Bill, crop insurance will loom large, as the historical average cost of the program is more than $6 billion per year.

According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service, the mix of policies translated into the government paying an average 62 percent of the insurance policy on each farm in 2014 — no matter how large or profitable.

But as we look at changes necessary for the program, it is critically important that we think about the farmers that will be impacted, including beginning farmers.

We face a crisis and opportunity ahead.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, nearly 100 million acres of farmland is expected to change hands as the next farm bill is implemented.

How do we want to see that land utilized? Is the “highest and best use” another strip mall or subdivision, or is there value in ensuring our food security by making sure that young farmers are able to grow food for their communities?

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association surveyed its farmers in 2016 and found that access to land and credit are the biggest business challenges. This is especially true for beginning farmers.

While land costs can fluctuate year to year, the long-term trend is one of increasing prices. As they seek to access farmland, these next-generation farmers face competition from not just real estate developers but also from existing farmers with history, capital and assets.

Because the crop insurance program provides subsidies to the biggest producers, these large commodity farms can outcompete younger farmers for land purchase or rent, making it nearly impossible for them to access land.

Quite often, these “new” farmers are interested in farming sustainably, protecting clean water and building healthy soil so they are less reliant on outside chemical inputs. Utilizing techniques such as long-term and diverse crop rotations, they build soil organic matter and reduce the potential for runoff.

These are the kind of practices we are incentivizing  to prevent the algal blooms that turn the water toxic.

As we minimize the unintended effects on beginning farmers, we also have an opportunity to link crop insurance subsidies to good conservation practices such as those mentioned above. It is common sense that linking financial support for crop insurance to reducing risk (and, potentially, crop insurance payouts) and improved environmental sustainability is a win-win for farmers, taxpayers and our communities.

We can protect the critical farm safety net — and at least some of the 100 million acres that will change hands in the next five to six years — while at the same time getting out of the way of beginning farmers and protecting our land and water.

Now is the time to improve the crop insurance program to better serve all farmers, and all citizens.