Reporter’s guide: investigating crop insurance

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Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

In recent years, crop insurance has become an increasingly controversial subject. While many support the program, others claim it sucks up too many taxpayer dollars. Reporters can use this guide to start their crop insurance research.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s federal crop insurance programs will cost about $90 billion throughout the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Each year, lobbyists and agricultural companies will likely spend millions of dollars in effort to sway potential crop insurance legislation, as well. For example, a joint analysis conducted by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and Harvest Public Media found that – during 2014 Farm Bill discussions – at least 80 groups spent more than $50 million lobbying efforts that included crop insurance.

The programs, administered by the Risk Management Agency, are put in place to help farmers recover from loses when unfavorable weather destroys their crops or when market fluctuations drain their profits.

Yet, despite the large pools of money flooding into the programs, critics have cited multiple flaws with the way that the crop insurance programs are organized and monitored.

Dating back to the at least the 1980s, the Government Accountability Office has warned the programs are vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.

Additionally, some critics have pointed out that the programs are too complex and cumbersome for farmers to sort through. During the 2013 planting season, farm operators had nearly two dozen different crop insurance policies to choose from when deciding how to insure their crops, for instance.

Still, many farmers say that they would be hesitant to farm without the added protection.

“Crop insurance is a risk-management tool that gives us a foundation from which to plan and work and really get a crop and reduce our amount of risk,” said Illinois farmer Mark Crawford in an interview with the Midwest Center earlier this year. “And it’s been a very integral part of my operation ever since I was young and I first got started.”

Here are some helpful resources for reporters to research and investigate crop insurance.


Farm Bill lobbying interest database

The Farm Bill lobbying interest database allows viewers to search for some of the key entities that were involved with 2014 Farm Bill politics. The look-up tool allows viewers to see information in terms of amount, year, period and issue.

For example, a search for “Monsanto” shows that the company spent at least $1,510,000 during the fourth quarter of last year. During that time, the company lobbied on issues that included biotech innovation and regulations. It also lobbied on issues included in the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013, along with the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013.

A search for “Cargill” shows that the company spent at least $340,000 during the fourth quarter of last year. During that time, the company lobbied on issues related to the Dodd-Frank implementation of Farm Bill policy. Similar to Monsanto, Cargill also lobbied on issues related to biotech, according to the look-up tool.

Overall, the tool revealed that at least 600 companies listed the Farm Bill or some part of it on their federal lobbying disclosure reports filed between 2012 and the early part of this year.

To look up more information, also visit the U.S. Senate Office of Public Records.

Other nonprofit organizations that track and analyze lobbying data include the Sunlight Foundation’s influence explorer.

Also, here is a good primer on lobbying contributions.

The Center for Open Politics also tracks lobbying contributions.

Additionally, Food and Water Watch did an extensive report on the 2008 Farm Bill.


Risk Management Agency

The Risk Management Agency is the U.S. Department of Agriculture agency that oversees its crop insurance programs.

On its website, the agency maintains a list of fact sheets. Those fact sheets range from explanatory pieces about the agency to in-depth descriptions of cover crops.

“RMA, through FCIC, provides crop insurance to American farmers and ranchers,” a fact sheet about the agency reads. “Private-sector insurance companies sell and service the policies. RMA develops and/or approves the premium rate, administers premium and expense subsidies, approves and supports products, and reinsures the companies. RMA also sponsors educational and outreach programs and seminars on the general topic of risk management.”

More importantly, the Risk Management Agency keeps track of all sorts of figures for reporters looking to dive into data. By using online tools or filing an official Freedom of Information request, reporters can gain access to data focused on crop insurance acres, indemnity payouts, premium costs and subsidy totals.

This map, for instance, was created using Risk Management Agency data.

In most cases, data can be broken down on a crop-by-crop basis or county level. Try using the Summary of Business reports tool.


Government Accountability Office

The Government Accountability Office, commonly referred to as the watchdog of Congress, is tasked with investigating federal waste and inefficiency. Historically, the accountability office has often criticized federal crop insurance programs.

In 1987, the office released “Federal Crop Insurance Corporation Needs to Improve Decision-Making.”

In 1993, the office released “Federal Program Faces Insurability and Design Problems.”

In 1999, the office released “USDA’s Progress in Expanding Insurance for specialty Crops.”

In 2006, the office released “More Needs To Be Done to Reduce Program’s Vulnerability to Fraud, Waste, and Abuse.”

In 2009, the office released “Opportunities Exist to Reduce the Costs of Administering the Program.”

“In the past, frankly, there have been some concerns that some farmers may have abused the crop insurance program by allowing crops to fail from neglect or deliberate action in order to collect insurance,” said Steve Morris, acting director for the accountability office’s natural resources and environments team, in an interview with the Midwest Center earlier this year.


University extension and outreach programs

With crop insurance, university extension programs are often helpful sources because they work closely with individual farmers. In fact, in many cases, extension programs create their own “crop insurance calculator” tools aimed at helping farmers determine which policies work best for them.

Iowa State University’s extension and outreach program dedicates a section of its website to revenue protection crop insurance.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Farm Doc program has a few different tools related to crop insurance, too. The program boasts the iFarm Crop Insurance Payment Evaluator, which estimates premiums for available insurance products. It also features that iFarm Crop Insurance Premium Calculator, which helps farmers decide which insurance option is the best for them.

For reporters who do not have much experience covering crop insurance already, university extension programs can be especially helpful because they often provide definitions of products and issue articles with relevant news updates.

To find extension programs in your area or across the nation, use this guide from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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