Crop insurance is a big part of the farm bill debate in Washington this year. The Senate recently passed a bill that would expand the heavily subsidized program. And now the House is zeroing in on the issue.
Several pending amendments would curb how much the government provides to cut the cost farmers pay for crop insurance. But, crop insurance premiums aren’t the only part of the system supported by tax payers.
Crop insurance companies also enjoy lots of government largess. For example, taxpayer money keeps farmers in business when the weather markets turn against them through federally subsidized crop insurance.
"Congress wanted this to happen and it is now happening,” says Keith Collins, who had the job of Chief Economist at the US Department of Agriculture longer than anyone ever has; he served 16 years under four presidents and watched as most farm support programs were rolled into crop insurance.
"You had one member of congress after another saying that we have to find a better way to manage disasters,” says Collins, “and the sort of the after-the-fact approach that had been taken was having to pass emergency supplemental on budgeted bills."
Last year, when the worst drought in generations struck the Corn Belt, there was no need for an emergency disaster program. That’s because unlike in previous droughts or floods, most farmers now carry plenty of crop insurance.
Popular... And Expensive
This year’s farm bill - if it passes - will likely kill the direct payments program that had been cutting checks for billions to farm land owners, whether farmed or not. Some of that money will be plowed into expanding crop insurance, mostly for farmers outside the Corn Belt, who can’t use the program effectively now.
The problem is that as crop insurance has become more popular with farmers it has also grown much more expensive. Plus, there's the matter of unpredictable weather in the Corn Belt.
The 2012 drought pushed the total bill for taxpayers to more than $13.5 billion dollars at a time when grain farmers are enjoying near record incomes and the federal government is skimping on everything from national parks to nutritional programs for the poor.
The backlash was inevitable.
"The crop insurance program, you really just got to say, that is under attack in Washington D.C.," says Tom Sell a lobbyist working to protect crop insurance.
Sell says senators weighed lots of ways to curb the cost of the program. In the end, they trimmed premiums and subsidies for farmers making more than $750,000 and tied crop insurance eligibility to environmental regulations that have long been requirements for participating in other types of farm programs.
Sell says crop insurance works great the way it is, and that it provides farmers with enough security to invest in equipment to manage their business aggressively, without betting the farm to do it.
But Bruce Babcock at Iowa State says the system is out of whack because taxpayers pick up most of the cost of farmer's business security.
"Where is it written that the taxpayers need to take all the risk out of farming to allow farmers to take more risks?" asks Babcock.
What Is Covered
Taxpayers support crop insurance in three basic ways:
- The government picks up more than 60 percent of the premiums that the farmers pay to crop insurance companies to the tune of about $7 billion dollars a year.
- Taxpayers pony-up for virtually all the insurance company's operating expenses. That bill was $1.3 billion last year.
- The federal government also steps in to bail out crop insurance companies when widespread disaster strikes and insurance indemnities total more than premiums.
Supporters say all of this is a benefit to farmers, because if the companies weren't getting the subsidies they would charge much more, and farmers couldn’t afford insurance. But Babcock says it amounts to a pretty sweet deal for crop insurance companies, too.
"Even in disastrous years… how much loss they have to absorb is dramatically limited by the taxpayers,” he says. “In good years they get a bunch of money.”
For last year’s drought the government stepped in to cover about 4.7 billion worth of crop insurance company losses. The drought cost crop insurance companies too. They’re out about 1.33 billion. But it is only the second year this century that they have actually lost money.
The industry's long run of subsidized profitability drew scrutiny; the Obama administration has capped the money it pays for operating expenses and the commission that agents can charge, stripping billions of dollars out of the industry. Those cuts haven’t caused a single company to walk away from the business.
Still, Keith Collins says they have been enough to move the policy debate to premium subsidies for farmers.
He says pending amendments in the house would cut premium subsidies across the board, cap subsidies to individual farmers or impose income limits on them, as was done in the senate.
Art Barnaby at Kansas State University says a small cut to crop insurance premiums would be fine, but he insists that crop insurance has to be subsidized to some degree in order to work as the principle farm safety net.
Drop the subsidy and the price might triple, many famers might drop coverage, some would pay to keep it.
"That would all work unless, the first time there is a disaster the government comes along with an ad hoc disaster program,” says Barnaby, “and then you just killed the incentive to pay those substantially higher premiums for insurance coverage"
Since the disastrous 1930s, federal government has maintained the farm safety net, and it’s that expectation that necessitates crop insurance subsidies now.
“You can't sell unsubsidized insurance into a market that expects a government bailout if something bad happens,” says Barnaby.
There is little doubt that crop insurance will emerge from the current farm bill process with hefty subsidies in place. If anything, it will have an even more important part of the safety net.
The debate is over the details of those subsidies and who winds up getting them.