Acreage Reports and Crop Insurance Woes
By Sam Mitchell, Nashoba Regional High School Summer Intern
The powerful mid-summer sun bore down with searing rays of bright light. The alluring fantasy of a drifting breeze was the only tantalizing respite as a stinging, salty sweat dripped arduously into my eyes and dribbled from my sunburnt neck down my back. A truck’s tires or the careless plodding of tired feet brought dust clouds out of the parched soil. In the flats, there is little to protect you from the bitter and angry reprisal of mother nature. Those willing to brave her harsh and seemingly unforgiving will have, however, been able to turn the otherwise daunting landscape into a bountiful harvest. Through hard work and perseverance, farmers at Flats Mentor Farm use what little time they can spare from their demanding work and family responsibilities to break through the rough flatland and reap a great and well-deserved reward.
Farmers at the flats work tirelessly in order to be successful in the production of their crops, but sometimes even this is not enough. Some years the natural environment will render itself inhospitable to even the most dedicated farmers; pests, drought, flooding, and a myriad of other unfortunate occurrences can cause crops to fail. Families and communities can be forced to forego food or income that they otherwise would have had, which can be disastrous for people living on already limited resources and strained budgets.
In light of this issue, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers a huge program through the Risk Management Agency (RMA) known as Crop Insurance. Crop Insurance was established following the terrible losses suffered during the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. The general idea is that the government will pay for the expected value of a farmer’s crops if a catastrophic event, such as drought, causes more than half of the expected yield to die. The government maintains a list of over 100 different crops for which farmers can receive insurance. However, many of the crops grown at the flats are not eligible for this program. This relegates the farmers to the Noninsured Assistance Program (NAP), which provides similar services for farmers growing crops that are not on the federal crop list. The difficulty is that farmers using NAP are frequently small farmers, like those at Flats Mentor Farm. Farmers are asked to provide a detailed report of their crops, the location of those crops, the acreage of the plots on which they are planted. When we went out to the flats, this meant painstakingly measuring each individual row to find its width and length. At times, the sloping land caused the math to seem more fit for a calculus student than for a group of high schoolers with a tape measure. What’s more, many of the plants were unfamiliar to us interns, many of whom had never set foot on the flats before. This meant repeatedly bothering the farmers for the names of the plants when they were at their plots or taking pictures of the plants to bring back to the executive director, Maria, when the farmers were not around or didn’t know the English name for their crops. If it was this onus for us, I can only imagine how difficult it might be for someone with a myriad of other responsibilities and limited English skills. The program’s design is severely inhibitive to small farmers, especially those like the farmers at the flats, whose time during the growing season is extremely limited.
This is fine for an enormous, monoculture farm like one might find in the midwest, but for a small plot of land nestled into the rolling hills of Lancaster, Massachusetts, this is a daunting task. Many farmers need to provide varied crops and be able to harvest throughout the season, whether they are subsistence farmers supplying their community or commercial farmers with obligations at weekly farmers markets. The result is that farmers need to plant many different crops on the land they have. Thus, while a soybean farmer may plant hundreds of rows of the same crop and easily report this to the RMA, a small farmer may only plant a few rows of each crop, making counting and measuring for a crop report a tedious and time-intensive task. Additionally, small farmers may combine rows, such as the centuries-old practice of planting maize and beans together in a row, an agricultural method which works well but is difficult to accurately report.
I had the opportunity to help the farmers in producing these crop reports earlier this month. I know firsthand that to call the task tedious and difficult is not hyperbole. The fact of the matter is, the system of crop insurance has been contrived such that it is more difficult for the farmers I worked with to get the same security. For immigrants, every success comes doubly hard; between the language barriers, long travel times, and need to balance family and work responsibilities, becoming a successful farmer is already difficult enough. This additional time is taxing for any small farmer on a limited schedule, and although important to track production, is often too time intensive for small farmers with diversified crops to complete. Luckily, myself and a few other interns were able to do this task for them, but in later seasons or for other farmers, there may not be interns available to help. The system is designed such that the farmers at Flats Mentor Farm, who already work harder than the average person to stay afloat, will slip through the cracks. This is a system that desperately needs reform.
As with many governmental organizations, reform is hard to come by. World Farmers, along with many of our partners, advocates for local farmers on issues like these. One such instance occurred earlier this month, when four officials from the RMA, including RMA administrator Brandon Willis, came to Flats Mentor Farm to discuss the difficulties our farmers have with crop insurance. They also participated in a town hall at the Carlson Orchard in Harvard, MA. I had the opportunity to listen to their discussions at FMF and at the town hall, where I learned about the myriad of issues that plague small farmers of all types. From cranberry growers lamenting the effects of a depressed market to apple growers concerned about hail damage preventing their product from being sold to major buyers. The government officials seemed receptive to the feedback, but it remains to be seen if anything will come of this discussion.