It is obvious to everyone in Eastern Corn Belt agriculture that we are in the midst of a natural disaster. Torrential rains, widespread flooding, and hundreds of millions of dollars in crop loss in the past 6 weeks across a wide area east of the Mississippi river qualify this spring’s weather as a natural disaster. Yet, there are a number of things that make this disaster different from other disasters. These differences demonstrate the lack of understanding of modern agriculture by most people and, at the same time, prove a point that farmers have been making for years.
Floods are not as sexy as a drought. The Midwest drought of a few years ago got major news coverage, this year’s floods have received very little. Part of this is because floods impact limited areas — in this case, mostly in rural areas. Droughts impact consumers far more than floods, since the lack of water kills urban lawns and gardens. Also, most people understand that the lack of water kills crops, but don’t understand how too much water can kill a crop.
Seen a FEMA trailer lately? While the flooding has impacted a lot of farmland, it has also impacted several rural communities. A good chunk of the town of Rensselaer, Indiana found itself underwater with homes and businesses in ruin. But as Steve Cain, Purdue Disaster Communication Specialist, told me, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in the catastrophe business not the disaster business. Which means, unless you have a hurricane, 8 point earthquake, or blizzard in a politically significant state, don’t expect a FEMA response. According to Cain, most of the communities impacted by the floods of 2015 are on their own. Even though crop losses are expected to top $700 million in Indiana alone, the Secretary of Agriculture (or even an Under Secretary of Agriculture) has not come out from Washington to see firsthand.
No disaster aid bills. In years past when disaster struck farm country, there would be a rush in Congress to introduce and pass budget busting disaster air bills. These would quickly become loaded with all sort of other costly pet projects that had nothing to do with the disaster at hand. Those days, however, are gone since these programs have been put into the Farm Bill and crop insurance eliminating the need for these ad hoc disaster bills. This is actually a good thing. Farm groups pushed hard for adequate funding of these programs which actually help growers in times of crisis rather than for the hastily put together disaster bills that cost a lot of money but may not have done much good for the people who really needed it.
Holy cow crop insurance works! During the writing of the last Farm Bill and even since its passage, there has been a strong and persistent effort to cut crop insurance. Groups outside of agriculture squawk about “farm subsidies” and lump crop insurance funding into this bag. Even the White House, which makes public statements in support of crop insurance, also worked behind the scenes to have OMB gut funding for the program. Yet, crop insurance will save many farms this year and is proof that this program does work. While it is not perfect, it does work far better than some of the disaster programs of the past. It will be important to remember this point in about a year when the flood waters are long forgotten and the attacks on crop insurance and water conservation funding begin anew.
No cry baby farmers. Imagine if the flood waters that rolled down the Wabash River had, instead, rolled down Broadway in New York. The howls for a helping hand and a handout would have been loud and long. Compare how farmers are talking about the floods that took out a large part of their livelihood with how residents of New Orleans acted after Katrina or how New Yorkers talked after Hurricane Sandy hit their town. While the comparison of the floods of 2015 and a hurricane may not be fair, the difference in how people react and respond is noteworthy. The quiet determination and resolve shown by Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio farmers says volumes to me about the character of the men and women who work the land.
By Gary Truitt