WASHINGTON (April 24, 2012)—The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is urging Americans to eat substantially more fruits and vegetables, but its crop insurance and credit programs handicap produce growers and instead promote commodity crops that are disproportionately used in heavily processed junk food, according to a report released today during a conference call held by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The report, “Ensuring the Harvest: Crop Insurance and Credit for a Healthy Farm and Food Future,” recommends a number of common-sense policies that would help American farmers grow more healthy food for our communities.
“If Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables, why do U.S. farm policies make it harder for farmers who grow them to earn a living?” asked report author Jeffrey O’Hara, an agricultural economist with UCS’s Food and Environment Program. “Even though those farmers pose a lower insurance risk, the USDA won’t give them the same protection it gives to large commodity farming operations.”
Weather makes farming a risky business, so the USDA offers crop insurance, making it easier for farmers to obtain bank loans or credit early in the year to cover the cost of seeds, fertilizer and equipment for spring planting. In the event of extreme weather—from spring frosts to summer flooding—that insurance gives farmers a safety net if their crops are destroyed or their price declines. For many farmers, insurance and credit is the difference between profiting and bankruptcy.
The USDA offers this crop insurance and credit to large farms growing corn, soy and other commodity crops, and to some large fruit and vegetable farms, such as tomatoes in California , but the agency shuts out “healthy-food” farms—small- to medium-size farms growing fruits and vegetables or raising livestock sustainably.
Many healthy-food farms, which sell their products locally at farmers markets, restaurants and schools, have become a market force in recent years. Currently, their local-food sales total $5 billion annually. But if fruit and vegetable consumption increased to meet the USDA’s MyPlate dietary guidelines, driving demand for healthy, sustainable produce, local food sales could increase to as much as $14.5 billion a year and generate as many as 189,000 new jobs, according to the UCS report.
Jack Hedin, owner of the 160-acre organic Featherstone Farm in Rushford, Minnesota, is one of those healthy-food farmers who cannot get crop insurance. In 2007, chronic rains brought crop disease and disrupted planting cycles. Combined with acute flash flooding, 60 percent of his farm was wiped out. Fortunately his farm rebounded and today it is thriving, but he still lives in fear of what might happen due to an extreme weather event.
“Without crop insurance, I worry every day about the safety of the farm, my family and our 30 employees,” said Hedin, who participated in today’s UCS telephone press conference. “The lack of access to crop insurance is one of the greatest impediments that I, and other small local farmers, face in keeping healthy-food farms safe and prosperous.”
In the House, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, is the lead sponsor of the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, which would expand farmers markets and provide support for regional farm and food systems.
“Instead of putting up roadblocks to farmers growing a diverse range of crops and livestock, we need to encourage these farmers and make it easier for them to provide the kind of healthy foods that are good for consumers and good for local economies,” said Pingree, who also was featured on UCS’s call today. “The Senate Agriculture Committee is marking up its version of the Farm Bill tomorrow, providing a timely opportunity to level the playing field for these farmers.”