Our View: Time for Critics to Trade Pencils for Plows

September 12, 2013
During a meeting with reporters this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted crop insurance “has come under unfair criticism,” adding, “Those who report on it don’t understand it and its importance to the food supply.”
Vilsack was undoubtedly referencing a series of articles published by Bloomberg this week, which, according to the news outlet, thoroughly examined crop insurance.
Of course, that “examination” read more like talking points from the Environmental Working Group than a true in-depth analysis.
Absent from the coverage were crop insurance champions like Secretary Vilsack, or the bipartisan leaders of congressional agriculture committees, or the country’s banking community, or visible academics, or farm leaders who have called crop insurance one of their top priorities.
The series didn’t even bother to quote House Speaker John Boehner, who has noted:
“Over the last 15 years, crop insurance is where we have been trying to help move farmers in terms of taking advantage of risk management tools for their crops … It is still the central focus of where we think farmers ought to be able to have easy access to insure their crops and insure some type of revenue out of it. It makes the most sense to me and always has.”
No, Bloomberg’s hatchet job relied almost solely on professional agriculture critics whose analysis has proven unreliable time and time again.
The “experts” Bloomberg turned to are the same people who last year predicted that drought related crop insurance costs would hit taxpayers to the tune of $40 billion.  They were off by about $26 billion.
These are the same critics who notoriously hide behind academic tenure to compare farmers to cheap drunks at an open bar or crop insurers to money launderers.  Claims that are as indefensible as they are offensive.
And these are the same groups that have worked for Brazil to attack U.S. agriculture and our domestic food supply – never mind Brazil’s massive run-up in subsidies or environmental degradations.
In its shockingly one-sided coverage, which ran an eye-popping 6,800 words in length, Bloomberg conveniently omitted these key data points, among others:
  • Farmers pay about $4 billion a year out of their own pockets for crop insurance coverage.
  • Farmers must shoulder significant losses through deductibles before crop insurance kicks in – about $13 billion in losses last year alone.
  • Crop insurance companies help cover losses and actually lose money in bad years to help shield taxpayers. When’s the last time you heard of an insurance company losing money?
  • In good years, the government actually makes underwriting gains on farmers’ premiums, which helps offset the bad years.
  • U.S. farm policy spending is in steady decline and has been since crop insurance’s rise to prominence.
  • Crop insurance spending has been cut $12 billion since 2008, making agriculture one of the few industries to help curb deficit spending.
  • While U.S. farm spending is declining, our foreign competitors are rapidly increasing their subsidies and trade barriers.
  • Crop insurance has been fine-tuned for decades to help protect taxpayers and replace costly ad-hoc disaster bills.
Perhaps it is time for these professional critics to find a new profession.  If farming is as easy and profitable as they make it out to be, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from putting down their pencils and picking up a plow.
With the world’s population exploding and just a thin green line of 210,000 full-time U.S. farms to feed the hungry, America needs more farmers than ever.  And it needs a strong farm policy now more than ever.
Of course, critics would probably be hesitant to take out millions in loans or put their family’s future at risk for a profession that is constantly at the mercy of the weather and steep market fluctuations.
So, maybe they could start with a small garden in their backyard or windowsill.  After countless hours of working the soil, nurturing seedlings, and fending off insects, critters, and wild weather, they will have a much better appreciation of what farmers do on a much, much larger scale.