Over the last two years, drought, frost and now flooding have hit Connecticut farms, and as weather-related disasters become more common, the farmers are pushing Congress to fix a crop insurance program they say hasn’t worked for them.
With the federal farm bill, an omnibus package of farm programs and funding passed by Congress every five years, up for renewal this year, the legislation could offer an avenue for changes to the insurance program.
Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, the only member of the Connecticut delegation on the Agriculture Committee, declined to comment for this story, but is holding a “Farm Bill Listening Session” with Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pennsylvania, on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Shepaug Valley Regional High School Auditorium.
Farmers are accustomed to managing the weather, but usually they’ll get a few good years in a row to make money, invest in the farm, and build up savings for the bad years, Brian Hurlburt, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, told CT Examiner.
But the disasters have been constant for the last four years, so those “risk management” tools become even more important, Hurlburt said. And if they don’t work, farmers won’t have the stability they need.
“If we’re trying to attract new people to this industry, they’ve got to see that there’s a career path for them, and there’s some stability,” Hurlburt said. “That doesn’t mean every year has to be perfect, but there’s got to be tools available to help offset the one or two events that could be pretty detrimental.”
The state reported frosts in February and May damaged 1,077 acres of crops and lost farmers about $8.4 million. They reported that the Connecticut River floods in July caused more than 1,500 acres of damaged crops and nearly $21 million in lost revenue, but Hurlburt said that’s only what individual farms have reported to the state.
The damage is far more extensive, Hurlburt said. Just 27 farms reported damage from the flooding, but Hurlburt said that probably closer to 100 farms have flood damage along the Connecticut River and in the northwest corner of the state. And even farms that haven’t been flooded are having mold and pest issues from the heavy rain, he said.
In a letter to USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack requesting a federal disaster declaration for Connecticut farms for the second time this year, and the fifth time in four years, Gov. Ned Lamont wrote that it was clear from talking to flooded farmers that the current federal farm programs aren’t working.
“These farms are underinsured, or uninsured, and the programs available are not sufficient to provide the support necessary to manage years like this one,” wrote Lamont.
Why doesn’t crop insurance work for Connecticut?
U.S. agricultural policy is dominated by massive operations in the South and Midwest where farmers raise large numbers of livestock, or grow hundreds or thousands of acres of “commodity” crops like corn, wheat, cotton and soybeans.
Agriculture in the crowded, highly developed and rocky-soiled Northeast is different. Instead of endless rows of soybeans, Connecticut farmers often grow a wide variety of crops on much smaller farms.
USDA Farm Service Agency Connecticut Executive Director Emily Cole, whose agency manages federal aid programs for Connecticut farmers, said typical crop insurance is aimed more at a producer with thousands of acres of commodity crops like corn, than at smaller farms in Connecticut that grow a variety of vegetables.
“We have quite a number of farmers who have four rows of tomatoes, five rows of peppers, two rows of eggplant – and that’s a lot harder to report,” Cole said.
The Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (or NAP) run by the USDA is meant to fill that gap, and provide a sort of disaster insurance for growers of “specialty crops” that aren’t covered by traditional crop insurance – including vegetable growers in Connecticut.
“It’s not a great fit for the types of production we have here in Connecticut,” said Hurlburt, who was in Cole’s position before he was commissioner. “It requires a lot of paperwork, it requires a lot of time and energy, and it pays out as a percentage of the wholesale value of the crop.”
The crop value is key for small producers. The basic coverage of NAP insurance pays farmers half of their expected loss at 55 percent of the wholesale prices of the crops they lost. Those wholesale prices are much lower than the price a farmer could get at a farm stand or farmer’s market, so farmers end up with a fraction of what they could have sold the crops for, Hurlburt said.
“At a farmers market you could probably sell tomatoes at $4 a pound, but the wholesale value is probably $1.50 or $2 a pound,” he said. “So you’re selling it for $4, they’re valuing it at $2, then they give you 55 percent so you’re getting $1.10.”
With the small payments and the amount of time and effort it takes to report data for a variety of crops, it can be difficult to get farmers in the door to sign up, Cole said. She said her office tries to make the process easier on them, understanding it’s a lot of time to ask for farmers who don’t have a lot of it. But Hurlburt said the program really needs to be changed.
Over generations, Connecticut farmers have developed their own risk management tool – diversifying their farms, Hurlburt said. They spread out risk by growing a variety of crops, and by finding ways to be productive in different seasons. In a normal year that works well, but Connecticut isn’t seeing “normal” years anymore, he said.
“Two pretty significant frost-freeze events that were detrimental to the maple season, the peach season, apples, blueberries, strawberries – that’s not something that normally happens,” Hurlburt said. “Then a July flood where we get 425 percent of the normal water we receive in July in the first two weeks is not a normal thing.”
The two disasters this year follow a disaster declaration for drought-stricken farms in 2022, and more for flooding following storms Ida and Elsa in 2021, and Isaias in 2020.
“The old way of managing your risk as a farm business in Connecticut is being challenged significantly right now,” he said. “If we want to have the small, diversified farms near population centers, we have to give them the tools to support them in these extremely challenging conditions.”
With climate change making weather patterns less predictable, addressing the gap for small farmers will become increasingly important, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, told CT Examiner.
“The recent flooding in Connecticut is a bleak preview of what farms are increasingly going to face as climate change makes the weather more and more unpredictable,” Murphy said. “We need additional emergency programs for farmers so that these devastating events aren’t a death sentence for the farms we rely on to provide food for our communities.”
The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, a lobbying group made up of specialty crop trade groups from around the U.S., has made improving disaster assistance for specialty crop farms a priority for the upcoming Farm Bill – calling for a permanent disaster program that isn’t tied to the definition of “adjusted gross income” that doesn’t work for smaller, diversified farms.
In a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday, the seven-member delegation to Congress wrote that the federal government needs to go beyond the typical disaster assistance, consisting mainly of emergency loans.
“Typical assistance from the disaster declaration will not work for all farmers in our state —Connecticut producers face unique market challenges that leave them vulnerable after a disaster,” they wrote.
Congressman John Larson, whose district in Hartford and Litchfield counties was heavily affected by flooding, said in a statement to CT Examiner that the industry may not survive the impacts of extreme weather if Congress doesn’t take “decisive action” to support local growers.
“This week, I introduced an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill to make direct monetary relief from the USDA available to Connecticut growers, critical funding I will fight for throughout the duration of this year’s appropriations process,” Larson said. “I continue to work with the delegation to enact reforms in the Farm Bill reauthorization to programs like crop insurance so the federal government can better address the unique needs of specialty crop growers.”
Hurlburt said the program should be changed to make documenting losses simpler. There aren’t a lot of loss adjusters in Connecticut, so farmers may have to wait weeks to have someone come to their farm and verify losses, he said.
“Now you have drone footage and photographs, could we have the farmer upload photos of the impacted areas?” Hurlburt said. “We’re not talking about 1,000 acres in the midwest, we’re talking about a couple acres of tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers. Those are easily documented on a small scale.”
There are programs that work, but they’re so cumbersome to access, he said. Finding ways to make those easier to work with, and to make values line up with the realities of small, diversified farms, should be a priority in the farm bill, he said.
“We’re trying to create a more local, diversified food system,” Hurlburt said. “You can’t do that if every year you’re having these crazy disasters that might take out a significant portion of their revenue stream.”