Ensuring a healthy harvest



Today I’m thinking about insurance. The point of having it is to protect the things we value most—like our health and our homes. But in U.S. farm policy, that logic has been turned on its head, and many of the crops we should value most are actually ineligible for insurance.

The risky business of farming

More than most businesses, farming is chock-full of risks—from crazy spring freezes to killer summer droughts and late season floods, not to mention the occasional plague of locusts. Crop insurance is how farmers protect their businesses and their families from bankruptcy in the face of such devastating risks. But it turns out that farmers who grow fruits and vegetables—the most beneficial foods for our health and well-being—by and large can’t get crop insurance.

That’s because Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offer federally subsidized crop insurance primarily for big commodity crops including corn and soybeans, which are grown in large part as ingredients for processed foods. A small number of large-scale fruit and vegetable producers, including California tomato growers and Florida citrus growers, can also get insurance. But most small farmers growing fruits and vegetables—as well as many organic farmers—are out of luck. And USDA-backed crop insurance is the only game in town.

Does it seem crazy to subsidize processed foods rather than healthy food and farms? UCS thinks so. That’s why this week we released Ensuring the Harvest: Crop Insurance and Credit for a Healthy Farm and Food Future.

Insuring the whole plate

Our report finds that lack of access to crop insurance is a major barrier for farmers across the country who want to grow more of the very foods the USDA’s nutrition experts tell us should fill up half our plates every day. One such farmer is Jack Hedin, who owns and operates Featherstone Farm near Rushford, Minnesota. This certified organic farm produces a diverse mix of vegetables—45 different crops in all—for sale to produce wholesalers, natural food stores, and direct to consumers as part of a community based agriculture (CSA) arrangement. Since its founding in the mid-90s, the farm has grown from three acres to more than 160, and now generates sales of about $1.5 million per year.

But as Jack wrote in an op-ed this week, USDA’s restrictions mean that all 45 of Featherstone Farm’s valuable crops will be uninsured this growing season, as they have been every previous year. That includes 2007, when massive flooding nearly wiped out Jack’s operation while nearby corn growers got insurance checks to cover their losses.

I asked my colleague Jeffrey O’Hara, economist and author of our report, whether there’s any downside to insure crops on diversified, “healthy food farms” like Jack’s.

His answer:

Absolutely not! These kinds of farmers actually pose a lower insurance risk than farmers who grow just one crop. That’s because diversification on the farm—just like in the stock market—protects against risk. In this case, the risks are crop-specific pests and diseases and weather damage at particular times in the growing season.

And there are real nutrition and economic benefits to be gained by leveling the crop insurance for small- and medium-sized “healthy food” farms—the kinds of farms responsible for the salad greens, asparagus, and strawberries popping up at local farmers markets right now. Studies (like this one) have shown that people eat more fruits and vegetables when they shop at farmers markets, so expanding those systems is an important step to help Americans eat better. And Ensuring the Harvest found that if we all ate enough fruits and vegetables to meet the USDA’s dietary guidelines, local food sales could increase to as much as $14.5 billion a year (from $5 billion currently) and generate as many as 189,000 new jobs.

Would you drive an uninsurable car?

With apologies to my automotive-minded UCS colleagues, just imagine if today’s crop insurance logic were applied to car insurance. I drive a hybrid because I believe it’s important to conserve fuel and minimize pollution. But what if drivers of hybrid and electric cars were denied auto insurance? Could I afford to drive my Prius if couldn’t insure it against damage or theft? Why would we penalize cleaner, healthier cars?

Such a tradeoff sounds ridiculous, but it’s one farmers across America face every year.

Back at Featherstone Farm, Jack Hedin reports that even after years of double-digit growth, he still can’t meet regional demand for his fresh organic vegetables. He’d like to scale up—which would create local jobs and keep more Minnesota food dollars in the state. But without whole farm revenue insurance, he can’t do it. It’s just too risky.

Just like the world needs less pollution from our tailpipes, it also needs less processed junk food, and by extension, more healthy foods. We should subsidize—and insure—the healthy harvest we need.

Are farmers markets opening for the season in your community? Leave us a comment about the healthy foods you’re buying there, and why you think they should get crop insurance in the farm bill Congress will write this year.