A national conservation group on Tuesday proposed a pilot crop insurance program that would reward farmers who improve the health of their soil, making it less vulnerable to drought and other forms of extreme weather.
The proposed program would reduce crop insurance premium rates for farmers who adopt proven techniques to improve soil health and resilience — practices such as cover crops, conservation tillage and efficient irrigation scheduling, said Claire O’Connor, an agriculture policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“It would be like offering lower car insurance rates to safe drivers,” O’Connor said in a telephone news conference.
As currently structured, the highly subsidized federal crop insurance program, rather than reduce risk, actually incentivizes risky practices such as planting row crops on highly erodible land, she said.
Similar studies by the Environmental Working Group have concluded that that the federal crop insurance program encourages the plowing of fragile land, resulting in severe erosion and polluted runoff from poorly protected crop fields.
“Healthy soil is the best insurance policy,” said another news conference participant, Gabe Brown, who farms in Burleigh County in central North Dakota.
Brown said the organic matter in his soil increased from less than 2 percent to more than 5 percent after he adopted no-till cultivation, cover crops and a diversified crop rotation. That increase in organic matter, he said, has increased his soil’s fertility and its water storage capacity.
Ben Chou, a water and climate policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said dramatic fluctuations between drought and excessive precipitation in recent years underscore the need to make cropland more resilient.
While the states are doing little to prepare for climate change, a restructured crop insurance program could play a pivotal role, he said.
O’Connor emphasized that the proposal is not a substitute for conservation compliance provisions that have been a part of recent farm bills.
“It would provide incentives for farmers to go above and beyond baseline conservation practices,” she said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, in its report Tuesday, noted that federal crop insurance paid out a record $17.3 billion in crop losses last year.
Iowa, with $1.983 billion in indemnity payments, ranked second behind Illinois, whose farmers received $3.014 billion.
The study, “Soil Matters: How the Federal Crop Insurance Program Should Be Reformed,” includes an interactive crop loss and weather map at www.nrdc.org/water/your-soil-matters that details crop losses county-by-county in all 50 states in 2012.
O’Connor said her group had not yet discussed its proposal with the Risk Management Agency, which administers federal crop insurance.
“That’s the next step. We’re hoping to have one of the crop insurance companies partner with us on a pilot basis and then expand it as part of the official crop insurance program,” she said.