A typical Northeast Texas cotton farmer could lose a crop back in the mid-1950s and spend the next five years trying to work out the debt.
“In 1956, a cotton farmer might lose $150 to $200,” says Kenneth Wright, a grain farmer and custom spray operator who farms in three northeast Texas counties.
“Today, it's not unusual for a farmer to lose $500,000 and spend the next 20 years trying to pay it off,” he says.
Wright, who would like for the federal government to come up with a reasonably-priced, effective crop insurance program, says he can't remember the disaster years of the 1950s but his mother kept meticulous records that show some stark differences from how farmers fare today.
“Farmers back then had no real safety net,” Wright says, “but the risks they faced were less expensive.”
His mother's records show that farmers could buy propane for as little as 11 cents a gallon.
“Labor was the biggest expense,” he said. Most farmers hired hoe hands and cotton pickers.
“Back then, a farmer typically had 80 to 120 acres of cotton and would spend from $800 to $900 a year to make it.”
Production costs stayed fairly low into the 1960s, Wright says. “Expenses were up a little into the 1970s but they started rising rapidly in the 1980s.”
Continuously escalating costs and lack of a comprehensive safety net, Wright says, puts today's family farm in jeopardy. “I want to see the family farm survive,” he says. “If we turn to corporate farms, food prices will go up.”
He's also concerned that failure to provide an adequate cushion for farmers could lead to dependence on foreign producers for food.
“We already depend on foreign suppliers for oil; we don't want to depend on others for our food supply.” He says consumers will not be confident in either the quantity or safety of their food supply.
The current drought, which has plagued much of his region for more than 18 months, puts many farmers at risk.
“I'm discouraged that the secretary of agriculture and the administration have taken a wait and see attitude with this disaster,” he says. “They want to wait until after harvest to see if we need disaster assistance.”
For many, Wright says, there will be no harvest. “In northeast Texas we already know we have a disaster. We've also heard some concern that disaster relief requests come from the same place. But some of these areas have had disasters for two or more years in a row.”
He doesn't expect to see any relief until after the November elections. “(Several) bills have already been shot down.”
While Congress waits, farmers and ranchers are hurting. Cotton and grain farmers across much of the Southwest will make little this year. Some crops have already been declared losses.
“Ranchers are hurting with forage shortages and high-priced hay. Most have had to reduce their herds, and many are hauling water to the remaining cattle.”
Wright says Congress acted much more quickly to provide relief to hurricane victims last fall.
“They moved rapidly after Katrina.” He says drought also has a human face if anyone cares to look.
It should not come down to a scramble for funds anytime disaster hits the farm sector, Wright says. He would like to see Congress include some kind of revenue insurance program in the farm bill. “It would be difficult to put together and to administer,” he says. “We want to prevent fraud, which is the big problem with insurance. Some people will always try to beat the system.
“But if we can show expected inputs for a crop, and an anticipated yield, we should get insurance to cover us to that point.”
Most policies now provide only 65-percent coverage. “We lose our input costs,” Wright says.
Crop insurance programs date back 50 years, and Wright says they desperately need to be updated to reflect modern farming technology and risk levels.
“Farmers can prove inputs,” he says. “We know costs for fertilizer, seed, fuel, etcetera, to provide a certain yield potential. We should be able to cover that amount with insurance.”
He says county averages also will help establish base yields and coverage levels.
Affordability will be critical. “I'm not certain what it will cost farmers but the coverage has to be affordable. I want to get away from the partisan approach to (disaster) assistance.”
Wright says he has no problem with the current farm program and worries about opening it up to changes.
“If we start making a lot of changes, we could end up worse off,” he says.