American farmers suffered more crop losses in 2011 than in any other year in recorded history. Total insurance payouts have surpassed $9 billion, and claims continue to roll in connected to historic flooding, droughts and other natural disasters.
"Farming is getting riskier than ever," said Julia Olmstead, a senior program associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. But "no one is talking about why farming is getting so much riskier, specifically about climate change," she said during a online conference last week.
On Tuesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee on Agriculture will host a debate on how best to protect against future losses for farmers and the environment. With the federal government's primary agricultural and food policy legislation expiring this year, replacement legislation is now being considered: As The Huffington Post reported in December, what ends up in the revised farm bill's final draft has important ramifications for the country's food programs, public health, the environment and the economy.
In the United States about 40 percent of the land is used for agriculture. The choice of where to grow crops and which tools are used can determine how much farming displaces wildlife, contaminates water or alters the land or reduces an area's ability to withstand floods and drought. With climate scientists predicting an increase in the frequency of damaging events, these decisions might become more important than ever.
Olmstead and other experts believe a proposal in the 2012 farm bill to require farmers to practice risk-reducing measures before obtaining crop insurance could go a long way toward realizing better protection of crops and the environment. Meanwhile, lobbyists for large farming interests continue to push for insurance with no strings attached.
"We do not support tying conservation compliance to crop insurance," Mary Kay Thatcher, a spokeswoman for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farming lobbyist organization, wrote in an email. Conservation compliance "is already tied to farm programs and will continue to be. We are concerned that if a producer is out of compliance due to something beyond his control -- a 100-year flood for example -- he would then be out of compliance for crop insurance. Without crop insurance availability, many producers won't have the ability to get financing."
Olmstead is concerned that a key program funded by the current farm bill that does require conservation (direct government subsidies of certain crops) is probably being eliminated -- and the environmental mandate along with it. "I'm afraid that will leave a gaping hole for soil protection," she said, referring to the conservation requirement.
More than half of the world's farmlands are already degraded, according to the United Nations. The United States cut soil erosion 40 percent after the 1985 farm bill required farmers seeking federal money and crop insurance to comply with conservation practices. But soil health quickly lost ground with the erosion of incentives in the mid-1990s, according to a paper released on Monday by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
"Crop or revenue insurance may be the prime lever for conservation," said the paper's author, conservationist Max Schnepf, noting that this has worked in the past and can be a factor in the future. "We have science that could be put in place today and could make a significant difference in erosion and water quality."
Research has shown the benefits of creating terraces on sloping lands and building buffers to protect streams and lakes from runoff, Schnepf said. Another technique he noted was the use of cover crops: grasses and other plants grown between regular crops to protect and improve soil. Farms best withstand extreme weather if they have a mixture of several types of crops, including perennials, he said.
For decades, members of the Vollmer family in North Carolina relied on tobacco as their primary crop, along with running an agricultural fertilizer business. The family transitioned in the 1980s to raising a diverse array of fruits and vegetables, growing some without any synthetic fertilizers. While the Vollmers have incorporated conservation practices to make their crops more resilient to adverse weather, their farm in recent years has been threatened by heavy rains, high winds, hail and hurricanes.
"We're completely vulnerable to Mother Nature," said Russ Vollmer in a video on the Rural Advancement Foundation International website. "We are trying to figure out how to stay in business."
A diversified harvest helps the Vollmers hedge their bet -- any one extreme event would cost the Vollmers only about a quarter of their annual income as opposed to the 90 percent common for large growers of commodity crops such as corn and soybeans. Yet, as the farm bill stands now, insurance coverage for small farmers like the Vollmers is far more expensive and difficult to secure than for commodity farmers.
The 2012 farm bill offers an opportunity to bridge this gap and lower overall risks, Olmstead said. "In this current state of budget austerity, it might seem radical to propose additional farm bill expenditures," she said. "But I think this is actually a cost-saving measure." With more protective measures in place, there should be less need for insurance payouts by taxpayers, she added.
Conservation practices might also reduce a farmer's direct costs. "The less you have to buy in terms of fertilizers and pesticides, the better off you are," Olmstead added. "And it's no small matter that these practices have a potential to increase soil carbon sequestration and reduce direct greenhouse gas emissions."