Crop insurance bill mounting for companies, taxpayers

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Claim payments to American farmers hit by the 2012 drought topped $3.5bn this week, according to the United States’ Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, reported on Saturday.

That includes more than $245m in compensation to Nebraska producers.

“This drought heavily affected spring-planted crops,” said Keith Collins, spokesman for National Crop Insurance Services.

By the time the dust clears, payments to holders of federally subsidized crop insurance policies are likely to go well beyond last year’s record of about $10.8bn nationally, Collins said.

He wasn’t willing to forecast a final number on behalf of his organization.

“But yes, we’ve seen estimates anywhere from $15 billion to $30bn.”

In Nebraska alone, according to federal crop insurance officials, those with a stake in crop production in 2012 bought almost 159,000 policies on about 15.6 million acres of land.

As one gauge of the level of participation, there are 18.17 million production acres in the state overall, including those where wild hay is harvested.

The total premium cost in the state of almost $667m included about $473m in taxpayer subsidies.

Two decades ago, farmers counted much more heavily on emergency disaster programs from federal lawmakers to help them survive weather extremes.

But more recently, higher subsidy rates and growing awareness about improvements in coverage, to include both yield and price protection, have made crop insurance the first line of defense against weather extremes.

In early November, Kansas is at the top of the chart in several crop insurance categories, including $448m in claims paid. One reason is that Kansas is the nation’s biggest producer of winter wheat, which is harvested earlier than spring-planted crops.

That means the pace of claim filing and paying is running ahead of Nebraska and other states farther north.

Veteran crop insurance agent Ruth Gerdes of Auburn , who insures customers in several states, said she is about 50 percent done with claims.

“Harvest was early,” she said, “and a lot of farmers have gotten their paperwork in, and we’ve been paying claims on a daily basis. So it’s flowing well.”

The taxpayer liability for the 2012 drought remains to be seen.

Collins said it would include about $6.9 billion in premium subsidies and about $1.3bn in operating costs.

“And then the question is what underwriting losses the government is going to bear.”

That question looms because the federal Treasury stands behind insurance companies to prevent them from being overwhelmed by claims exposure at times of widespread weather calamity.

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