Feds make crop insurance more relevant for Maine fruit and veggie growers

Earl Ireland of Ireland Farms inspects three acres of peas on his Lincoln farm in 2009.
Earl Ireland of Ireland Farms inspects three acres of peas on his Lincoln farm in 2009.
Posted May 26, 2014, at 6:48 a.m.
Last modified May 26, 2014, at 3:23 p.m.

In a move that will likely help Maine farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will offer new crop insurance options to cover fruit and vegetables. The program will extend to smaller farms crop insurance coverage that traditionally benefited only growers of commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, and gave little incentive for farmers to diversify what they grow.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the rollout of the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection pilot program on Wednesday.

The whole-farm policy will give farmers the opportunity to get coverage for all crops, rather than on a commodity-by-commodity basis, which will provides flexibility for farms with a diverse stock, a USDA press release said.

Officials from the USDA Farm Service Agency declined to comment as the program is in the early stage of rollout.

“It looks like the USDA Risk Management Agency is trying to fix some of the issues with current insurance options that haven’t been popular with farmers,” said David Handley, vegetable and small fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth.

In previous Farm Bills, crop insurance appeared to cover the same crops that crop subsidies covered, Handley said.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, proposed the “whole farm” insurance in a bill that was later included in the Farm Bill that passed Congress and was signed by President Barack Obama earlier this year.

For John Rebar, executive director of UMaine Cooperative Extension, the change signals that federal policy is becoming “more reflective of what is happening on Maine farms.”

The USDA has provided different options for farmers of fruit and vegetables to get policy coverage, but the options were “not a really good fit for a lot of farmers in Maine,” Handley said.

As a new generation of Mainers turns toward agriculture for a living, they are starting small farms with a diversity of crops. Overall, these small, diversified farms haven’t fit into the safety net of crop insurance, Rebar said.

“We are seeing a real resurgence in growth of diversified farms,” Rebar said. “They need some risk protection.”

For Garin Smith at Grassland Farm in Skowhegan, diversity has a “lifestyle appeal” for young farmers. At the same time, the diversity has been a barrier to enrolling in crop insurance.

High premiums and paperwork have contributed to a lack of interest among Maine farmers, and new farmers often could not meet the prerequisites for qualification, such as burnishing proof that they have been engaged in farming for at least five years, which was stifling for new organic farmers.

Smith has not enrolled in crop insurance. For Smith, growing a diversity of crops has been insurance enough, so if one crop fails it is only a fraction of what’s growing. Insurance is “an appealing idea, but our livelihood has never really been threatened,” Smith said.

The paperwork and premiums can be “a big barrier for a lot of young people wanting to get into farming,” he said.

For people like Handley “the move towards whole-farm policies makes sense.”

The new policy, which was included in the 2014 Farm Bill passed in February, may benefit berry growers in Maine. According to Rebar, there’s a lot of risk for berry growers, who contend with weather and insect infestations that can bring about an economic downturn, and the policy can help reduce the risk.

In 2012, an infestation of spotted wing drosophila destroyed an estimated 2 million pounds of blueberries at an estimated $1.4 million economic loss. Despite the loss, wild blueberries contributed $69.1 million wholesale to the Maine economy, compared with $56.7 million wholesale for other fruits and vegetables, according to Rebar.

More farmers may choose to grow berries with the new policy. “Hopefully we will see growers who see less risk in growing berries and getting involved,” Handley said.

While Smith has opted not to enroll in crop insurance in the past, he sees them as well-meaning.

“I hope at some point that the USDA puts its ear to the ground a bit harder and provides something useful for a new generation of farmers,” Smith said.

The new Whole-Farm Revenue Protection program will roll out in 2015.

 

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