WASHINGTON, April 24, 2012- The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released its farm policy report today, “Ensuring the Harvest: Crop Insurance and Credit for a Healthy Farm and Food Future,” which recommends USDA offer a whole-farm revenue insurance program for diversified, small and organic farms.
“The USDA offers this crop insurance and credit to large farms growing corn, soy and other commodity crops, and to some large fruit and vegetable farms, such as tomatoes in California , but the agency shuts out ‘healthy-food’ farms—small- to medium-size farms growing fruits and vegetables or raising livestock sustainably,” according to UCS.
“If Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables, why do U.S. farm policies make it harder for farmers who grow them to earn a living?” asked report author Jeffrey O’Hara, an agricultural economist with UCS’s Food and Environment Program. “Even though those farmers pose a lower insurance risk, the USDA won’t give them the same protection it gives to large commodity farming operations.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said during a conference call with UCS today that the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill seeks to expand crop insurance to include whole-farm revenue insurance and eliminates planting restrictions with the repeal of direct payments. However, she said “it falls short so far when it comes to improving credit and lending programs for small farmers.”
Crop insurance makes it easier for farmers to obtain bank loans or credit and provides a safety net during natural disasters or price declines. However, Pingree said many “healthy-food farmers” cannot currently obtain crop insurance, because the program is tailored per commodity.
“Without crop insurance, I worry every day about the safety of the farm, my family and our 30 employees,” said owner of Featherstone Farm in Rushford, Minnesota, Jack Hedin. “The lack of access to crop insurance is one of the greatest impediments that I, and other small local farmers, face in keeping healthy-food farms safe and prosperous.”
USDA only establishes insurance policies for crops in regions where there are extensive data on prices and yields. O’Hara said the lack of available insurance represents a disincentive for farmers to grow different crops in different regions, “which needs to occur for farmers to grow healthier crops and adapt to climate change.” In order to develop whole-farm revenue insurance in regions where there may be insufficient data, UCS recommends that USDA initially implement the policy with its own premiums and plan to collect data over time that can be used to calculate premiums more accurately.
The report also recommends that Congress develop distinct insurance policies for organic practices—rendering the 5% premium surcharge assigned to organic farmers obsolete. During the UCS conference call, Pingree said Senator Robert Casey, D-Pa., will offer an amendment to eliminate the surcharge in the Senate markup of the 2012 Farm Bill draft this week.
In the House, Pingree is the lead sponsor of the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, which would expand farmers markets and provide support for regional farm and food systems.
“Instead of putting up roadblocks to farmers growing a diverse range of crops and livestock, we need to encourage these farmers and make it easier for them to provide the kind of healthy foods that are good for consumers and good for local economies,” said Pingree. “The Senate Agriculture Committee is marking up its version of the Farm Bill tomorrow, providing a timely opportunity to level the playing field for these farmers.”
Currently, farmers selling locally generate local-food sales at $5 billion annually. According to the UCS report, if fruit and vegetable consumption increased to meet the USDA’s MyPlate dietary guidelines, “local food sales could increase to as much as $14.5 billion a year and generate as many as 189,000 new jobs.”