Julie Grant reports.
When orchard owner Adam Sullivan of Peru testified before the House Agriculture Committee in Saranac Lake in March, he got choked up. Sullivan remembered his father’s expression after a hail storm destroyed the apple crop back in 1983.
"I don’t remember how long it lasted, but I remember him staring out the window with my mother consoling him. It was determined that a tornado had landed less than a mile away. It pummeled the apples. I was six. The real kicker was they didn’t have crop insurance."
Crop insurance has taken center stage in the 2012 Farm Bill. For decades, the federal government has sent money directly to farms and agri-businesses that grow commodities. Most of those big corn, soy, and wheat farms, the ones that can run into the thousands of acres, are in the west and Midwest, so much of the government money has gone there as well. Not to the New York growers, whose farms average only 300 acres.
Instead of making those direct payments, the proposed Farm Bill beefs up the federal crop insurance program.
Matt Nelligan is glad. He’s spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau. And says when Tropical Storms Irene and Lee hit last year, it became obvious that New York producers didn’t have enough of a safety net.
"We needed a specialty crop insurance program that gave us a fair shot for apples, and tart cherries, and all the various crops that we grow in New York state."
Crop insurance covers farmers if their yields are low, or if prices decline.
Under past Farm Bills, farmers would get the insurance through private companies, but the federal government would pay more than 60% of the premiums.
Those crop insurance subsidies don’t sit well with many family farm advocates, who say the federal government has mostly been helping farms that don’t need help.
"And they’ve become an income stream to a very small number of large growers."
Dan Imhoff is a small farmer in California, and author of a book called “Food Fight: A Citizens Guide to a Food and Farm Bill.” He says the government should help protect farmers from a catastrophe like Tropical Storm Irene.
But Imhoff says corporate farms uses crop insurance to guarantee their income. For example, commodity prices are currently high. When prices drop, those farms are insured for their current rate of income. And taxpayers are paying the insurance bill.
"So guaranteed revenue up to 90% of these really incredible high prices that farmers are getting right now. It doesn’t really seem like a safety net. It seems like a subsidy in sheep’s clothing."
Congressman Bill Owens of Plattsburgh is on the House Agriculture Committee. He says subsidizing insurance is different than providing a direct payment to farmers. Owens is a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
He says many types of businesses insure their revenue.
"The reason we pay so much attention to our farmers because food is really a national security issue, as well as a feeding ourselves issue. And we need to create an environment where farmers can prosper to the point where they can stay in business."
But Family farm advocate Dan Imhoff says if Congress really wants to protect the food supply, the Farm Bill should do more than subsidize the largest commodity growers.
"What should be on the table is who is a family farmer who’s income really deserves support from the taxpayers."
Matt Nelligan of the New York farm bureau says it’s true, New York farms haven’t gotten much in the way of federal crop insurance in the past. But he says this year’s farm bill looks different. Congress plans to expand the insurance program to more farms, to smaller farms, and provide better coverage.
"So I think what you’re seeing in these various permutations of the farm bill is there's a recognition of that. It shouldn't matter what crop you grow. That’s the farmer’s choice. But everyone should have equal access for farm insurance programs to cover their crop."
The 2012 Farm Bill still needs a vote by the full Senate and the House. Funding in the current Farm Bill expires in September.