The USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) has announced that around $13.5 million in grant money will be provided to educate farmers about available crop insurance and risk management tools.

Questions concerning 2011 crop loss numbers and how crop insurance might fare in the next farm bill were also shoehorned into a Friday morning press call with Bill Murphy, RMA Administrator.

The outreach efforts will “particularly highlighting limited-resource farmers, traditionally underserved farmers, new/beginning farmers, returning vets going back into agriculture,” said Murphy. So, quite a number of projects are being initiated this year.

“About $5 million of the $13.5 million are going to targeted states. These are states historically underserved in crop insurance: Delaware and Maryland north into New England, West Virginia, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Hawaii.

“We’re very happy to announce the new grants. They’ll go all over the country – very small grants in some (cases) and some large grants in (others). It will meet a number of needs, we anticipate.”

For a complete list, see here.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said "despite hardships and setbacks due to extreme weather conditions in many parts of the country, American agriculture is experiencing its strongest year overall thanks to the dedication and resilience of our farmers and ranchers. USDA is committed to diversity, inclusion and performance in everything we do, and we need to continue to ensure opportunities in agriculture for all Americans. Through these partnerships, traditionally underserved agricultural producers and those in targeted states will receive assistance in understanding and using risk management tools.”

In a statement, the USDA said $8.5 million will go to fund 109 agreements. Examples include:

  • In Wisconsin, six hands-on workshops will educate dairy farmers on using recordkeeping and financial analysis software.
  • Washington state will expand on previous work with Hmong and Latino farmers using targeted farm production and business management curricula.
  • Oklahoma State University will hold a statewide conference and six regional conferences for producers of underserved commodities and specialty crops.
  • New and beginning refugee and immigrant farmers in Massachusetts will perform a risk management assessment of their operations, and be taught to incorporate risk management strategies and practices into their plans.

Murphy spoke about previous, successful work with the Hmong. “I worked for years in California and we did a number of programs with Hmong farmers. These folks mostly farm very small acreage for direct-market sales to the consumer.

“But they had very limited knowledge on how to market; how to look out for the regulatory aspects of farming – they were very unfamiliar with that; how to package and deliver products to increase opportunities for sale and price.

“So, a lot of grants we did at the time were directed to working with them. Many of those Hmong farmers moved into farmers markets established throughout the state. They increased their revenue considerably. Some have grown to the point where they no longer need the assistance. That’d ideally what we want to do.”

Veterans, 2011 losses, farm bill

As for outreach to returning veterans keen to farm, Murphy said the effort will build on several years’ work.  USDA has had “an initiative (aimed) at vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. A very high percentage of vets today are actually from rural America. Many want to go back to rural America and get back into farming. We’re doing a lot of work with (veterans).”

Asked about the sorts of crop insurance changes the next farm bill might bring, Murphy said “there is a lot of discussion. President (Obama) has put forward some ideas in his deficit package on ways to save some additional funding in crop insurance while still maintaining a viable program. His idea … is to reduce some of the administrative and operating funding provided to companies. Also, reducing the potential underwriting gains of the companies. Then, there (would be) a slight shaving of the producer subsidy. Add all those up and it’s about $8.3 billion in savings over about 10 years.”

Many proposals “are coming from different (legislators). We’ve seen some of them and provided reviews. (Other proposals) we have not seen.

“Everyone agrees we have to get the cost of government a little more under control,” said Murphy. “Crop insurance will continue to be one of the mainstays for the farm safety net. The farm organizations have definitely said that as well as a few (legislators). How it all ends up with the farm bill, at this point (is unknown).”

What about crop loss numbers for 2011?

While payments are already being made, said Murphy, “there are quite a few in the pipeline as producers get their records back from elevators and gins before completing claims.

“We had about an $11.5 billion premium. That’s a record year for crop insurance, mostly driven by high commodity prices. Whether we exceed that is a question. I wouldn’t be surprised if we exceed that – it’s still a bit early to tell.

“We know that cotton, wheat, corn and soybeans make up about 75 percent of the program. Everyone knows cotton and wheat definitely had some struggles this year with the (drought) in Texas, Oklahoma and into Kansas. So did corn and soybeans.”

In discussion with insurance companies, Murphy is “picking up mixed comments … regarding what they’re seeing. Lately, I’ve been hearing (the situation) is better than they originally thought (it would be).”