Farm Bill Passes Senate, with Significant Changes to Crop Insurance

The Senate has changed its tune on crop insurance.

Legislators approved the Farm Bill today by a vote 64-35. Known as the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, the bill lived up to the reform part of its name with several key amendments related to crop insurance.

As previously reported by FERN, the federal crop insurance program has grown into a $9 billion a year subsidy that’s a boon for well-to-do farmers and insurance companies, but offers little public benefit.

While many farm policy reform advocates were less than optimistic the five-year piece of legislation that funds everything from food stamps to school lunches would undergo any significant reform, three key crop insurance amendments were among several better-than-expected outcomes of the mammoth, $480 billion bill.

“Crop insurance went from being the secret safety net to becoming the center piece of the debate,” said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources for Environmental Working Group.  “Before crop insurance was just a sleeper issue. These are the first cracks in the wall.”

Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) successfully introduced an amendment that will reduce insurance premium subsidies by 15 percent for farmers earning more than $750,000.  The Senate also approved an amendment by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) that tied receipt of crop insurance subsidies with conservation requirements to protect highly erodible lands and wetlands. Crop insurance is the only part of the so-called safety net not subject to these conservation requirements. And finally, the Senate passed an amendment by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) that directs the USDA to develop a plan to pay organic farmers at organic rather than conventional prices in the event of disaster insurance payments.

While not an about-face, the amendments were “definitely steps in the right direction,” said Ariane Lotti, assistant policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture, one of the leading advocates for farm policy reform.

“They were important amendments to make sure crop insurance isn’t a free for all anymore.”

Lotti said the Senate’s actions on crop insurance are the result of the legislators becoming more aware of the issue, media coverage, grassroots organizing, and economic fairness in a difficult economy.

Meanwhile, the house has delayed a vote on its version of the bill until at least next month. A conference committee will then reconcile the two bills.