Throughout farm country, crop insurance is commonly recognized as the cornerstone of the farm safety net. But Risk Management Agency Administrator Marcia Bunger believes more training, outreach and education are needed on the program's specifics. 

Speaking to Agri-Pulse, Bunger also said she wants to reach out to underserved producers who may not know how to best insure their crop and livestock, and diversify the agent workforce.

“With my travels, I could see there were people who did not know what crop insurance was, or maybe just had very little understanding of how it works,” she said during a recent interview. Others told her, “I don't even know how to find an agent,” even though RMA has an agent locator.

As she meets with producers, Bunger says she hears misconceptions: crop insurance is too expensive, losses are never paid, or that producers do have crop insurance, but it’s through the Farm Service Agency. (Only the noninsured crop disaster assistance program is delivered by FSA; the rest is delivered by private agents as part of a private/public partnership.)

The 2018 farm bill authorized USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to expand the Partnerships for Risk Management Education program to serve a new audience, defined as “producers that are underserved by the federal crop insurance program.” Last fall, RMA announced it would spend $3.3 million on two partnerships to address this issue.

The RMA is investing about $1.3 million to establish a “Navigator” program where subject matter experts will be trained to help those underserved customers as part of a two-year pilot program. 

The program will be a partnership with Ron Rainey, an extension agricultural economist with the University of Arkansas and the director of the Southern Risk Management Education Center. He highlighted some of the concerns he has been hearing from potential crop insurance customers during testimony before the House Agriculture Committee last year. 

“If an insurance company’s portfolio of clients in a particular region is made up primarily of large-scale commercial row-crop farms, they may have little incentive to cultivate business among small, specialty crop, and/or livestock producers, particularly on products for which sales or underwriting procedures are more difficult, such as whole farm revenue insurance,” Rainey noted in written testimony. He also lamented the fact that contract poultry production, which is prevalent across many southern states — has “virtually no access to insurance products.”

Rainey said because of hiring delays, the Navigator program was unable to officially launch until March 1, rather than when it was slated to start in September 2022. He plans to have a project director manage a cohort of up to five risk management specialists focused across the Southeast region.

“The goal is to serve as a liaison to help build transparency (and) communication and actually do some data collection to identify benchmarks around what works and what does not work,” he told Agri-Pulse.

For example, Rainey said his group would target underserved producers and engage with faculty at 1890s Land Grant colleges who are working with small farm programs. He also plans to work with Hispanic-serving institutions as well as community organizations. 

They will try to make some inroads in livestock and forage coverage — “an area where people have been traditionally underserved.” In addition, his team will work with RMA, crop insurance companies and agents.

“So, it’s almost like a customer service representative in some sense,” he said. The program is “also collecting some data and analytics” to help inform the process.

“We will be interacting with RMA to better understand where some of the gaps are from the data they have and hope to identify some needs for additional data to improve the service of crop insurance across the region,"  And also to enhance the transparency of communications.”

RMA also invested about $1.9 million with the Intertribal Agricultural Council to train and create a pipeline of crop insurance agents and adjusters within underserved agricultural communities. The IAC will partner with Alcorn State, Annie’s Project and the Rural Coalition as part of a project Bunger calls “Building Resiliency."

Tomie Peterson, IAC’s regenerative economies director, said the first steps of engagement are underway.

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“In an effort to develop a robust system that can continue after the pilot period, a feasibility study is one of the first things we are tackling to fully understand some of the gaps and potential barriers that may come up in the crop insurance & loss adjuster landscape. Timelines for initial reports from this study are set for late spring," she said in an email to Agri-Pulse.

Bunger said this pilot "was born out of my wishes, vision, whatever … that individuals be given the opportunity to become a crop insurance agent like I was once, or a loss adjuster." Each of those partners will be developing a model for how they recruit, select, train and then help assist with the state licensing requirements.

Bunger says it's important for growers to have “relationships with people in their communities that look like them and they know that they can trust.”

Asked about the number of individuals that will be recruited as part of this program, Bunger said she didn’t have a firm number in mind yet.

“I would be happy to have 1,000, but I would also be happy to have 10. Because when I look at those communities, if we can even have 10 loss adjusters and agents across the country, I think we've made the step in the right direction,” she said. “You only need to plant one seed.” 

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