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Knutson: Federal crop insurance has broad support

There aren't many things on which just about everybody in mainstream U.S. ag circles agrees. Views differ, sometimes greatly, on most important topics. Off the top of my head, I come with this near-universal-agreement list:

• Raising crops and animals is hard. Making a profit is even harder.

• The proposed Waters of the U.S. rule, or WOTUS, would be a huge mistake.

• Food waste is bad.

• PETA and the Humane Society of America are not admirable organizations.

• Federally subsidized crop insurance is both good and necessary.

Crop insurance was prominent in the thoughts of many Upper Midwest farmers recently. March 15 was the deadline to purchase or modify federally subsidized crop insurance for most spring-planted crops in the upcoming growing season.

Most Agweek readers know all about federal crop insurance. For those who don't, here's the short course:

Federal crop insurance seeks to protect farmers from "unavoidable risk" associated with bad weather, crop disease and insects. Taxpayers pick up some of the cost, farmers the rest. Crop insurance policies are sold and serviced through private companies. The federal government subsidizes the program to keep it affordable.

Though farmers generally support the program, there are critics, on the political left and political right. While it's always risky to make generalizations, the criticism goes like this:

Left-winger: "Federal crop insurance subsidizes big corporate farmers with tax money that should be spent on social programs."

Right-winger: "Federal crop insurance distorts the free market and benefits farmers at the expense of taxpayers."

To which supporters of federal crop insurance respond, "Farming is inherently risky. Federal crop insurance reduces that risk and helps to ensure our safe, affordable food supply."

My take?

Yes, federal crop insurance reduces farmers' risk. But I'm nowhere near smart enough to know whether safe, affordable food depends on it.

The validity of the lefty argument depends on how you define "corporate farmers" and what you consider sound social programs. There's not nearly enough space here to tackle either aspect of that.

As for the right-wingers' case, well, there's some truth in it. Federal crop insurance affects the planting decisions of many farmers, especially ones in the Upper Midwest. And, yes, taxpayers help to foot the bill. If you truly believe in the free market, you can't logically and consistently reconcile that with federal crop insurance. (I've made that point privately to free-market farmers who respond with, "It's a complicated world," or "The free market is best, but it's not perfect.")

One important point: Some farmers and farm groups — a minority, but they do exist — complain that federal crop insurance pushes up the price of farmland, helping established farmers and hurting young, beginning producers. Others in ag disagree. The issue is too complicated to explore further, but I'd be remiss not to mention it.

This much is clear:

The 2018 farm bill, on which Congress is beginning work, will revisit federal crop insurance and could make sweeping changes to it.

Lefties and righties — who agree on little else — will come together to push for change.

Farmers — who so often disagree among themselves — will come together to support the program.

My best guess: farmers will win, just as they've won similar battles in the past. But only after another long, bruising battle.