It’s wonderful to extol the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables, to urge them to be made more available in our schools and restaurant menus and to fight to better educate the public about the growing body of research that shows fruits and vegetables are critical to promoting good health.

But what about fighting for public policies that support the very farmers who grow fruits and vegetables? Specialty crop growers — those farmers who grow crops including apples, peaches and pears — are somewhat unique in agriculture in that they grow higher value, often perennial crops and are slightly more vulnerable than the average commodity farmer or rancher.

And while the last decade has seen a wide variety of farm policies that were devised to help the growers of the major commodities in times of weather calamites, one policy that has really worked for the specialty crop industry is crop insurance.

That’s why, as a crop insurance agent, it’s so distressing that the Senate passed an amendment to the farm bill that would subject crop insurance participation to a means test. The means test would essentially take insurance benefits away from many of the larger, well-established and highly profitable farmers and ranchers.

Now at first glance, this might sound like a good idea, given the fact that so many Americans are struggling. But the amendment holds serious ramifications — particularly for specialty crop farmers here in South Carolina and elsewhere — who will suffer from the unintended consequences of removing highly successful farmers from the insurance pool.

The Coburn-Durbin amendment risks driving up premium costs for specialty crop farmers, and other small and mid-sized farmers, because it would effectively remove the most successful and thus least risky farmers — who keep everyone else’s premiums low — from the insurance pool.

Higher premiums

For example, if you removed the healthy individuals from a health care plan, those who remained would have to face higher insurance premiums because they would have a higher collective risk of illness. In order for insurance to be economical and effective, insurance companies have to spread risk and delivery cost out across a diversified customer base to make products more affordable for all.

For every risky policy, you need one with little risk as an offset. If those folks leave, you get stuck paying for the difference, or losing benefits and services.

Under this amendment, the most successful farmers, including some fruit and vegetable growers, would likely have to cut back on their crop insurance purchases. As a result, the small farmers, the beginning farmers, and smaller specialty crop farmers — all of whom have historically suffered losses and thus have higher a higher risk profile — would all pay a price under this amendment.

Farmers across the state will be stuck having to pay more for their premiums for the same coverage they’re getting today and agents like me will be more pressed when dealing with the smaller farms.  

And what will happen when farmers are faced with higher costs to protect their fresh fruit and produce? They’ll be forced to pass those costs onto consumers, which will make it more difficult for them to maintain the diet they’re being told to eat.

And that’s not fair to you.

Crop insurance has proven itself a resounding success, and has shifted a good share of the risk of agricultural disasters from the taxpayer to private companies. It has been able to do this because crop insurance is a public-private partnership that allows farmers of some 129 crops, and all sizes and risk levels, to purchase policies that cover their specific farm.  When disaster hits, their indemnity helps them get back on their feet.

And despite record agricultural losses in 2011, totaling nearly $11 billion, there was not a single call for a large-scale government disaster package in Congress. Why? Because farmers collected their crop insurance indemnities and didn’t need a Congressional bailout.

Farmers, farm leaders, crop insurance agents and lenders alike filed into the halls of Congress this year and told our representatives, in one unified voice, “do no harm to crop insurance.”  

Hopefully, that message will be heard in the House as it prepares to take up the farm bill and will reject any similar amendments to their farm bill. That vote will assure all of us that the safety net that keeps small, specialty crop producers in business growing fruits and vegetables for the American public can still be counted on.