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Soil Matters: How the Federal Crop Insurance Program can encourage farming methods to build soil health and resilience against extreme weather

Claire O'Connor

Posted August 26, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Living Sustainably

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In 2012, farmers in my home state of Nebraska lost $1.5 billion worth of crops. $177 million of that was just due to heat.  $35 million due to hot wind.  And $1.2 billion due to drought.  In fact, 92% of the crops lost in the Cornhusker State last year were tied to these three extreme weather circumstances, making Nebraska the #9 most drought-impacted state. (See how your community was impacted here)

In other words, 2012 wasn’t a great year to be a Nebraska farmer.  Or for that matter, a farmer just about anywhere in the country. Around the country, farmers lost more than $17.3 billion worth of crops.  To put that big number in perspective, insured crop losses between 2000 and 2010 averaged just $4.1 billion.

crop insurance claims.png

To handle risks like the 2012 drought, most farmers turn to the Federal Crop Insurance Program, which pays for part of the losses that farmers suffer when weather destroys their crops; this program has undoubtedly helped many farmers try again after devastating years like 2012.

Unfortunately, years like 2012 are not the anomaly we’d like them to be.  In fact, as the USDA points out, extreme weather will continue to plague farmers. 

The good news is that farmers have a key tool to help them become more resilient to these challenges right beneath their boots—their soil!

Healthy soil actually holds more water, requires fewer inputs, and results in higher yields than soil that’s been degraded.  Although each of these attributes of healthy soil is important no matter what the weather is doing, the benefits of healthy soil are most pronounced during years with tough weather challenges.  

But don’t just take it from me.  Here’s 2012 NRDC Growing Green Award winner Gabe Brown, who has seen the benefits of healthy soil firsthand on his own farm:

(Read more about Gabe’s healthy soil here

For example, consider that last year, farmers who used cover crops to regenerate their soil had higher yields than farmers who did not use cover crops.  This yield benefit was most pronounced in the most drought-impacted states, highlighting how healthy soil is one of the best “insurance policies” available to farmers.

With the significant risk reduction afforded by healthy soil, one would think that the Federal Crop Insurance Program would be encouraging farmers to adopt practices that make farms more resilient to weather-related challenges, sort of like how car insurance companies offer “good driver discounts” to encourage careful driving habits.  However, Federal Crop Insurance uses the same formula to set premiums for farmers who are actively improving their soil and farmers who are degrading their soil, making it more like charging  the same car insurance price for careful drivers and for reckless drivers.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  As NRDC’s Soil Matters report points out, the FCIP could instead offer lower (and fairer) premiums to farmers who adopt soil-building and risk-reducing practices.  Offering reduced premiums to farmers who adopt practices such as cover cropping, no-till, and irrigation scheduling would benefit farmers by empowering them to tap into the insurance in their soil and help them become more resilient to extreme weather pressures.  It would benefit the environment—healthy soils need fewer potentially polluting inputs.  And it would benefit taxpayers by securing a food future without a $17.3 billion price tag.

This is a rare win-win-win situation.  Will the FCIP take advantage of it?  Encourage them to support farmers who regenerate their soils here.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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