Crop insurance has always been a hedge against bad weather, insect damage and drought. For producers who diversify, there is a new tool in the toolbox for protection against Mother Nature.
Roger Umlor still cringes when hail or wind storms head toward his family’s 460 acres of orchards in Conklin, Michigan. But a redesigned insurance program for agricultural producers, called Whole-Farm Revenue Protection, has him less on edge in those weeks before the apples, peaches and cherries are safely harvest and shipped from the Centennial Fruit farm.
Roger Umlor, Centennial Farms: “It is still farming so we kind of accept some risk anyway. So with our Whole Revenue insurance, we still feel we are taking the risk, but at least there’s still that backing there.”
Producers need to sell at least three types of crops or livestock to qualify for the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection – or WFRP’s – highest levels of coverage and maximum premium contribution from the government. Those with two commodities are eligible at lower coverage rates. Single-commodity producers are ineligible for the higher premium contribution from taxpayers, but can obtain protection.
Roy Black, Michigan State University, professor: “Those farms that are well diversified – roughly speaking three or more crops – then the premium subsidy rate – the part the government pays versus what the grower pays – is significantly larger than it is for the standard corn, soybean, wheat, cotton and rice policy…the risk for the whole portfolio is less than the risk for an individual crop and they wanted to essentially incentivize people to consider the product.”
Whole-Farm Revenue Protection was based on two pilot programs that failed to gain widespread popularity in the dozen or so years of their existence. A mandate in the 2014 Farm bill spurred USDA to launch Whole-Farm on a limited basis in 2015. By 2016, the program had been fine-tuned and was made available to producers across the country.
The value of the commodities covered under the plan grew 109 percent, from $1.1 billion to $2.3 billion.
But while most states have gained enrollment, Whole-Farm Revenue is still dwarfed by other crop insurance programs and represents just one tenth of one percent of the more than 2 million policies partially supported by the federal government. The total value covered by those policies, including the more popular Multi-Peril Crop Insurance, topped $100 trillion in 2016.
In recent years, Congress has begun pushing farmers toward greater reliance on insurance programs rather than relying on direct subsidies or disaster payments that follow catastrophic weather events.
Roy Black, Michigan State University, professor: “Congress basically routinely did these off-budget disaster schemes. The argument has been: what level of coverage and what kind of products do you offer so you are making payments to growers commensurate with what the risk is, not what the deal of the day - so to speak - is?”
Umlor, who is co-owner of Centennial Fruit and part of the fourth generation to work this Michigan orchard, says the Whole-Farm plan seems to offer a better mix of cost efficiency and protection for the family’s orchards compared to other government-supported insurance programs.
Unlike insurance programs based on expected yield, WFRP looks at an operation’s annual revenue stream over three to five years. Producers decide how much of that revenue they want to protect – ranging from 50 to 85 percent – knowing they will pay a higher rate for more coverage. The plan also covers livestock at values up to $1 million.
For Centennial, the program takes away the risk of having an adjustor try to estimate yield losses after severe weather damages their crops. Instead, any reimbursements are based on concrete numbers from past tax records.
Roger Umlor, Centennial Farms: “I think the simplicity of it makes it work. It would be really hard to cheat the system, which is nice. And you can be confident in that. And it’s a safety net for the food supply.
Kelly Jackson of Daniels Produce in Columbus, Nebraska, which has signed up for a third year under Whole-Farm, says the loss adjustors sometimes lack familiarity with the less commonly grown fruit and vegetable varieties. Jackson, who runs the 500-acre vegetable farm with her parents and brother, says if some produce is still harvested after a disaster, hidden blemishes can hurt marketability. Whole-Farm’s use of an operation’s historic revenue stream helps work around that problem.
Kelly Jackson, Daniels Produce: “In 2014, the year before Whole-Farm when we had that huge hail storm, we had I think 60 or 70 acres of cabbage just shredded. Everybody had disasters. The adjustor took a good solid ten days to get out here and, by then, ten days later, it had started to grow back. And it made heads, but a lot of it had black rot.”
The family, who has farmed their land for four generations, had already paid crews to harvest the cabbage before the extent of the damage was discovered.
Kelly Jackson, Daniels Produce: “Sometimes all you are doing is going further in the hole and you don’t know it until the dust settles because you are just in it in the moment and all you want to do is do your best to save your crop.”
Daniels Produce had one of just ten Whole-Farm policies in Nebraska as of 2016. But those numbers may increase as Nebraska Extension works to educate private insurance companies about the program.
Kelly Jackson, Daniels Produce: “If you are a field corn-soybean person that also has – I mean they can get this too, you know? And if they are into livestock and sheep or whatever, and alfalfa, that’s three commodities. But I don’t think a lot of people know this exists because there’s not a lot of agencies yet willing to take on the complexity of this.”
Michigan State’s Black says Whole-Farm Revenue also provides some incentive for producers to consider or continue with greater crop and livestock diversity.
Roy Black, Michigan State University, professor: “They really were starting from the point of view of what can we do that actually exploits the nature of diversity of crops?”
Umlor sees Whole Farm as a way to shield his family’s legacy against disaster.
Roger Umlor, Centennial Farms/Umlor Orchards: “Right now, we have trees ordered out to 2018 and downpayments on them. And, of course, like any farm, we have loans out that are due and it sure helps with banking. If we had two bad years in a row, we could be out of business here. So to have that backing, it’s good to know; it kind of helps protect the family and the business and all the work we put into it - and not just my generation.”