Thanks to new farm bill, organic farming now has more backing
March 8, 2014
Even after a string of natural disasters in our state, Weld County, Colo., organic farmer Jean Hediger feels better about her crop this year than any year before.
For the first time since her family-run farm began growing certified organic crops 20 years ago, her winter wheat crop is insured for a value that she says is comparable to what she'd get at market. "It makes us want to grow more organic acres, and it makes us feel more secure in this crazy environment we're having," Hediger said.
Thanks to provisions in the recently passed, five-year farm bill, more organic farmers may be getting the same good news on their crop insurance. Agriculture economist Dawn Thilmany said historically, organic farmers receive insurance payments at the same rate as conventional farmers, even though some organic crops go for twice the price of conventional commodities. But she and others are hopeful that's about to change.
"The new farm bill, from what I understand, is changing the process and the ability to have better, fairer premiums for people to be able to get organic insurance," Thilmany said.
Thilmany, a professor at Colorado State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, said insuring organic crops has traditionally been akin to trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. She said organic growers were required to follow conventional best practices to qualify for insurance — although those best practices conflicted with organic principles — and a lack of accurate data on the organics market left the government without the ability to set fair crop insurance prices.
Thilmany said several provisions in the farm bill passed earlier this year may address those issues. The bill specifically states that no later than 2015, all organic farmers must be awarded federal crop insurance in line with market values. The USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation is tasked with keeping track of information on organic insurance. The bill also sets aside millions of dollars to collect organics-specific data and improve technology, a move that Thilmany says shows that the government is recognizing important differences in the organic world.
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This year also marks the end of a 5 percent premium surcharge previously required to insure organic crops.
Harry Strohauer, who grows potatoes and other crops near La Salle, said he grows about 10 percent of his crops organically, which costs more but doesn't yield more, insurance-wise. He said while water troubles are the main reason he doesn't invest more in organic, he said inadequate insurance is still a factor that keeps him from growing more acres.
"We do have much more at risk because of that," he said. "It increases our loss whenever we have a weather event or something that affects our yields." With specialty crops like fingerling potatoes, Strohauer has yet to see insurance that would cover his entire loss. He said he hasn't heard of being able to get better insurance yet.
"This is good news if they are making a change on this," he said.
Hediger said Golden Prairie is essentially a group of organic growers who combined to market their product. Together, they farm about 35,000 acres of organic crops, mostly in Weld County. Hediger said with improvements in crop insurance prices, she hopes more growers will look at the industry. Hediger, whose husband and son run their 2,500-acre farm near Nunn, said she's had to forego crop insurance in recent years, but she's hoping that with the new provisions in place, she won't have to do that again.
"We're not going to complain about how it wasn't," she said. "We're just going to be grateful for how it is now." ❖