Right before our very eyes, the nation's specialty crop capital has turned into the nation's frozen food section, as the San Joaquin Valley suffered several consecutive nights of freezing temperatures. While the extent of the damage to some crops could take weeks to assess, one thing is clear: Some farmers will take a big loss.
Loss is common in agriculture, and there has been a lot of it lately, though most of it was not here in California. In 2011, we saw a a freeze in Florida that hit the citrus crop, then Midwestern droughts, floods in the South and even hurricanes. Last year started off looking like a banner year but morphed into the worst U.S. drought in decades. Much of the Midwest is still suffering.
Thankfully, most farmers are protected by crop insurance, a backstop for when the bottom falls out. Crop insurance helps farmers manage risk. It combines the public sector with the competitiveness of the private sector. Farmers buy policies that are partially underwritten by the government, but the private sector services the policies and pays off when the farmers takes a loss.
For many farmers, particularly the thousands who grow specialty crops, crop insurance is the only risk-management tool available. Most of the growers I know buy crop insurance every year, yet nine times out of 10 they don't collect a dime.
It's not cheap. In fact, some growers spend $100,000 on policies they seldom use. Those who say farmers are getting rich off crop insurance, do the math.
When there's a natural disaster, losses can be steep. If a farmer loses his entire crop to disease or disaster, many could go under without a backup plan. That plan is crop insurance.
California's citrus industry is a window into the national crop insurance program and how it works. It was first introduced after a devastating freeze in 1990. Initially, growers were hesitant to spend large sums for protection. But participation has grown over time as premiums dropped.
The growth of crop insurance is a testament to the market and the dedication and professionalism of those who service the plans.
But there are those in Washington who will take the failure to pass a four-year farm bill and use it as an opportunity to eviscerate crop insurance. Every day I speak to California farmers, who, like farmers elsewhere, are worried about what would happen if their only risk management tool is weakened or eliminated.
Their message is to "do no harm to crop insurance." If Congress feels the need to revisit the program, it should only be to strengthen it and expand the number of crops it covers.
California agriculture generates more than $37 billion a year. Sixty percent of our farms are less than 50 acres, just one indicator of the growing number of specialty crop operations. California needs specialty crops, and specialty crops need insurance.
Roach is the CEO of Global Ag Insurance Services in Fresno, the only crop insurance provider headquartered in California.