The first eight months of 2011 have been a difficult time for American farmers, who have seen their operations disrupted by an endless stream of snowstorms, floods, droughts and record heat affecting regions across the country.
As a result, farmers and their trade associations are telling Washington they need a more robust crop insurance safety net, making disaster relief a top ask for the 2012 farm bill. They are also hoping that insurance programs are spared in this autumn's deficit-reduction talks.
Still, agriculture groups are reluctant to link their new emphasis on risk management to the weather events of the past few years, and they reject outright the notion that they are trying to insulate themselves from climate change.
"It's not something that they bring to the table when we have policy discussions or even talk about things like crop insurance and stuff like that," said Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Commission.
Together with its national trade association, the National Corn Growers Association, the Kansas corn trade group has put crop insurance atop its wish list to Congress for the farm bill and the deficit talks.
White said that in the current fiscal climate, his group would be prepared to accept some cuts to price- and volume-based subsidies in order to preserve a strong insurance safety net for farmers.
"To the extent that cuts are coming -- and I think there is an acceptance that that's generally the scenario we're looking at -- they hope to maintain the crop insurance as strong and viable as we possibly can," he said.
Many Kansas corn growers have experienced drought or flood -- or both -- this season, illustrating why such a safety net might well be needed. But White said the new preference for crop insurance has more to do with the fundamentals of farming than concern about a hostile future.
For one thing, he said, today's corn prices make price support policies less important.
"Prices on the farm are good now, generally speaking," he said. "But if you don't have a crop, then prices don't matter."
Farming is also a more expensive proposition then it used to be, he said, with fuel costs, equipment and land values rising, and with them a farmer's exposure to risk.
But the risk level farmers are facing today is not unusual, he added.
While White said that insurance had always been a top priority for corn farmers in drought-prone Kansas, the National Cotton Council has historically placed farm subsidies at the top of its legislative agenda.
But when it rolled out its policy recommendations for the next farm bill late last month, the cotton trade group asked Congress to transfer some of those subsidies into a revenue-based insurance program "which will result in strengthening growers' ability to manage risk by making an affordable revenue-based crop insurance program available for purchase."
The trade group did not return calls for this story.
The American Farm Bureau, a major agriculture trade association, is also mulling support for a more robust federal insurance program. Richard Krause, the group's senior director for congressional relations, said its board would meet in early October to vote on its legislative agenda, including policies relating to disaster relief.
"It's something that we're looking at," he said.
Like White, Krause said that a robust crop insurance program was one way of filling the gap that would be left if Congress pulls the plug on direct payments to farmers as a way of cutting spending.
But Brian Murray, director of economic analysis at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, said Congress' likely retreat on farm subsidies did not adequately explain the renewed interest in crop insurance.
"That's really not what insurance is designed to do," Murray said.
He noted that federal insurance programs for weather disasters serve a different function from traditional farming subsidies. The former protects against disaster, while the latter attempts to guarantee farmers a minimum return on investment.
"It's supposed to protect against adverse events that you can't really plan for or recover from if they happen, not if there's a slow gradual increase in input costs."
Murray suggested farmers were prioritizing insurance above other federal assistance as a means of adapting to increased instances of extreme weather without using the words "climate change."
Climate adaptation is part of what it means to be a farmer, he said.
"They change crop varieties as they see that certain crops are becoming less and less successful in certain places," he noted. "Farmers have been adapting to climate change and weather for a long, long time."
Disasters trigger call for safety net
Jim French, an agriculture advocate for Oxfam America, said the drumbeat for a stronger weather-disaster safety net had become louder this year, as farmers struggled with one disaster after another.
"I'm seeing the shift in terms of policy asks," said French, who is himself a farmer. "It's very dramatic."
Even last year, he said, agricultural groups appeared to be more interested in seeing that their favorite farm subsidies were extended in next year's farm bill, rather than in beefing up disaster insurance. But along came 2011, which persuaded them that they needed more protection from hostile weather patterns.
"Now all of a sudden the messaging is coming that 'we know we need to make some big shifts, but focus on insurance. Focus on insurance,'" he said. "That's a big change, and it's coming from all sectors."
French also saw a subtle change in the way some lawmakers from affected states are approaching climate change.
He noted for example that Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, raised climate change during a field hearing on the farm bill in Kansas last month. The Progressive Farmer, a blog, quoted the senator as saying that he had become convinced that the climate is changing some years ago during a trip to Antarctica.
"I looked at the ice rings," he is quoted as saying. "It was obvious to me that we had global warming. I came back and I tried to let agriculture know let's not get into the debate, is there global warming or is there not global warming? Let's be part of the answer."
Roberts told E&E Daily last week that he did not mean to link the drought in his home state to man-made climate change -- especially if that would encourage increased carbon regulation by U.S. EPA. But he said farmers should play it safe by voluntarily incorporating carbon mitigation into their farming practices.
"In the meantime, you needed to organize in agriculture to see how we could be of help in terms of carbon sequestration, in terms of better cropping practices," Roberts said. "There's a whole host of things we're doing now."
"Carbon in the atmosphere: bad. Carbon in the soil: good," he added.
French said he was heartened that Roberts was at least willing to discuss climate change. He said that farmers would be in a better position to prepare for a changing climate if they acknowledged it was happening.
"If U.S. farmers could more fully acknowledge the impacts of climate change, there might be opportunities for funding mechanisms, both private and public, that could be made available," he said, adding that if a cap-and-trade bill were to eventually become law it could provide a stream of income that could fund farming adaptation efforts.
Very few agriculture trade groups link human emissions to weather patterns, but the National Farmers Union is an exception, having backed legislation in the last Congress to cap industrial greenhouse gas emissions.
Chandler Goule, vice president for government relations for NFU, said this year's weather rollercoaster is not solely responsible for the farming sector's increased interest in federal insurance programs.
Agriculture is looking ahead to a future of reduced spending where rural voters wield less political clout, he said, and crop insurance looks like a better long-term bet then reliance on farm subsidies.
Goule said that other agriculture trade groups are reluctant to embrace climate change in part because it had become a very politicized issue since Congress debated cap and trade in 2009 and 2010.
"It meant pretty much that if you supported climate change you were a Democrat and if you opposed it you were a Republican," he said, adding that most rural voters tend to identify as Republicans.
"Unfortunately, we say politics always gets in the way of good policy," he said.
Age demographics also play a role, Goule said.
"A lot of this comes with the fact that the average farmer is 54 years old and getting older," he said. "We are not seeing young people enter the industry as fast as we're seeing people retire and leave it."
Older farmers are historically less willing to change their farming practices to mitigate or adapt to climate change, he said.
While many agriculture trade groups are moving toward pushing for crop insurance, not all are.
Colin Woodall, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, noted that while his group's membership has been hard hit by weather events this year, they want tax breaks to help them cope with it rather than new federal insurance programs.
He dismissed out of hand the idea that ranchers might face increased hardships linked to global warming.
"We have not traditionally gone along with the drastic thoughts of global climate change," he said, adding that "a lot of times people want to throw agriculture under the bus, saying that we're a cause of global climate change."
Woodall said events like the current drought in Texas and Oklahoma are unlikely to spark a belief that the climate is changing.
"If you look at our industry -- year in, year out -- there's always some place that's on fire or is in a drought situation or a flood situation," he said. "So even though it's been a hard year, it hasn't done anything to make the cowboys think that it's an unusual event."