Government crop-insurance program dings farmers for green practices

The policies of the “Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, a taxpayer-funded insurance program managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) and administered by a network of private companies,” punish farmers for environmentally-friendly practices, like planting cover crops, says Kristin Ohlson in FERN’s latest story, which was produced with Ensia.

“Most U.S. farmers who grow corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and other commodities buy crop insurance through one of these RMA-supported companies. The insurance helps them ride out the vagaries of weather, market price and other variables, and helps farmers qualify for bank loans to cover the expenses of the growing season,” Ohlson writes.

But the RMA often refuses to support certain regenerative agriculture practices, which it considers financially risky, even though recent research points to their many advantages.

“[I]n a 2015 National Wildlife Federation survey, 45 percent of 250 farmers who reported they were interested in trying cover crops but held back said they were concerned about potential complications with crop insurance,” writes Ohlson. “And over one-third reported that they’d been told by an agent or adjustor that using cover crops could put a claim at risk of denial. According to the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture, cover crops are planted on only 2.6 percent of the nation’s croplands, despite their many benefits.”

Those benefits include feeding soil microorganisms year-round, rather than leaving them hungry during the off-season. The microbes, in turn, build up the nutrients in the soil, increasing yields and profits. Cover crops “also improve soil structure so water can penetrate to plant roots and create a mulch on the surface that slows evaporation,” and they “hold soil nutrients, like nitrogen, in place, instead of letting rain and snow wash them into waterways, where they become pollutants,” says Ohlson.

But the RMA is wary to back practices that it considers risky, and according to the agency, the virtues of cover-cropping remain debatable. Ohlson details the experience of one Kansas grain farmer, Gail Fuller, who filed a crop-insurance claim filed after a devastating drought took most of his fields. He was denied because the company accused him of “interplanting” cover crops within the market crop. Fuller had long limited herbicides on his land, increasing plant biodiversity, and using no-till practices that build up the carbon in his soil. The National Wildlife Federation eventually stepped in to help him win his case and re-instate his insurance coverage.

But regenerative agriculture remains a minor focus at RMA, and many farmers are reluctant to make changes that could improve the health of their land because of an “array of obstacles” says Ohlson. Not only is their crop insurance at risk, but since many farmers (39 percent) lease their land, they’re at the mercy of landowners who might resist progressive planting practices that could affect rent checks. Peer pressure and a land-grant education system that favors conventional agriculture also play critical roles in maintaining the status quo.