Insuring Against Disaster

Thanks to the recently passed 2014 Farm Bill, federally subsidized crop insurance is an even bigger player in determining what the landscape looks like. That's troubling, considering that in recent years that impact has been mostly negative, since the program removes most of the risk associated with plowing up acres formerly considered too erosive, wet or otherwise marginal to produce a decent crop.

But perhaps this behemoth of a program can be a force for good. After all, crop insurance’s growing clout in federal farm policy makes it one of the last remaining programs for incentivizing farmers to put in place conservation production systems.

The Farm Bill's authors recognized the increasingly long shadow crop insurance casts over the land, and tried to address it by linking conservation compliance to insurance premium subsidies. Under the new rules, farmers must have in place basic soil and water stewardship on highly erodible or very wet land to qualify for subsidized insurance premiums.

That's a good step forward but may present challenging implementation issues, such as how an enforcement system is put in place. After all, past attempts to link federal agriculture program eligibility and conservation compliance have met with mixed results.

The Farm Bill also included a sodsaver provision that reduces crop insurance subsidies on land previously unplowed for crops. Again, this is an important step and could save some of our fast disappearing grasslands. But it should be pointed out that although the sodsaver restriction was originally sought nationwide, the final Farm Bill limited it to Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Montana.

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But farmers and soil conservationists are starting to talk about an even bigger opportunity for using crop insurance to promote stewardship farming. Why not use it to support farming systems that make farming less risky in this era of increasingly erratic climate? One example of a farming technique that is increasingly proving its powers of resiliency is cover cropping—growing non-commodity species like rye to protect fields and build soil health on acres that normally would be covered only a few months out of the year by corn and soybeans.

As we reported in this blog last month, recent farmer surveys in the Upper Mississippi River watershed are showing cover cropping provides the kind of soil health benefits that are not only good for the environment, but also economically viable. Cover cropping has proven particularly effective under less than ideal weather conditions, such as the Great Drought of 2012.

But adoption of the technique still lags in the U.S.—one estimate is that only around 2 percent of farmland in the Mississippi River basin is cover-cropped each year. That's why during last month's National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health in Omaha, there was much talk about using crop insurance to get more cover on the land. Several conference presenters echoed the same sentiment: insurance reforms that recognize healthier soil as a lower risk to the public coffers may be one way to promote cover cropping.

"We need to build resiliency into our systems, because nature throws us curve balls," said Wayne Honeycutt, the Natural Resource Conservation Service's deputy chief for science and technology. "If something can be quantified as lower risk, then it only follows that it should translate into lower insurance rates and lower loan rates."

A quarter of the respondents to one of the recent cover crop surveys said a reduction in insurance premiums would give them an incentive to plant cover crops, according to Rob Myers, regional director of Extension Programs for the USDA's North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

During the Omaha conference, Myers and others announced a goal of seeing U.S. cover cropped acres grow from the current estimate of three million to 20 million by 2020. Perhaps one way to reach that goal is to use the crop insurance system to directly reward farmers who take care of the soil.

“Just tie crop insurance to soil loss and you’d have 20 million acres of cover crops just like that,” said Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer who uses cover cropping as part of an integrated system involving mob grazing of cattle and no-till planting. During a panel discussion in Omaha, Brown said the current crop insurance program impedes innovation in agriculture by taking away the incentives for farmers to try things beyond the typical corn-soybean rotation. “On our farm we’ve built enough soil resiliency that we don’t need crop insurance.”

However, the Risk Management Agency (RMA) isn't convinced. And that's too bad, since the RMA administers the federal crop insurance program. It has its hands tied because the use of cover crops isn't always recognized as a “good farming practice,” said an RMA official who attended the Omaha conference. He added that RMA defers to university research on what is considered a sound, low-risk agricultural technique and the agency is "uncomfortable" with the fact that there isn't a lot of good research on cover cropping.

"In insurance we want an unbiased source of information," said the official.

I've been to the part of North Dakota where Gabe Brown and the other farmers and scientists he works with are proving that a diversity-based system that utilizes cover cropping can produce soils that resist everything from drought to wash-outs. In this case, a very unbiased source—the weather—has spoken.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.