In late October
at Dulles Airport, I bid farewell to Silas
Buru, an Ethiopian woman farmer, and Mr. Mengesha Gebremichael, a Relief
Society of Tigray staffer. The three of us had spent two weeks
together on a speaking tour highlighting an innovative risk management and
agricultural weather insurance program called HARITA. The project is now being
scaled to Senegal and other countries through a collaboration between Oxfam
America and the World Food Programme, called the R4 Rural Resilience
Even before I
arrived home, the themes of agricultural insurance and risk management popped up
in the emerging
elements of a proposal the Congressional Ag Committee leaders were
developing in what would soon be called the “secret Farm Bill.”
And in the weeks
that followed, I thought often about the contrast between risk management in the
US and Ethiopia.
allows farmers to go about the business of farming without fearing that one big
storm, one extended drought, or one huge market collapse would mean going out of
business. That’s why I, along with most US farmers, enroll in farm programs,
take out crop insurance, invest in soil and water conservation practices, and
occasionally use hedging tools like forward marketing. That’s why Silas Buru
participated in HARITA.
takes partners – taxpayers, insurance companies, a commodity traders, extension,
and banks. All of these from a safety net. But what if the safety net becomes
the main support for farmers? That means that a partner will be bearing a
heavier burden, and farmers begin to “farm the programs”, rather than the
The stage for
this kind of lopsided US support was set to come out of the Ag Committees this
• An uncapped
shallow-loss revenue proposal would have made payments to farmers experiencing
as little as 10% losses to either price drops or production—an uncapped
give-away that would have continued to reward the largest producers, and
according to the Farm
Bureau, encouraged excessive risk.
• The most trade
distorting subsidy of all, the marketing loan deficiency payment, was set to
continue. This is the subsidy to cotton that triggered the Brazil case and rigs
Schnepf, Brazil’s WTO Case Against the U.S. Cotton Program, Congressional
Research Service, 10.
target prices established for corn, wheat, rice, cotton and soybeans
could allow farmers to plant crops on the basis of the subsidy and not the
conservation compliance was linked to either crop insurance or shallow loss
revenue programs. This was like asking the government to insure a house built on
a mountainside prone to mudslides.
All of these
proposals came out of closed door process dominated by large commodity interests
and two or three Agriculture Committee leaders in an attempt to pass a Farm Bill
that could have been authorized through 2017 with no debate or
The secret Farm
Bill collapsed this week along with the efforts of the Super Committee. For a
moment, democracy looks to have won out.
But, what a
difference there was between those proposals and the simple and modest weather
insurance my Ethiopian friends talked about. Under HARITA, farmers could substitute
their work for premiums by implementing conservation practices,
improving infrastructure, and diversifying crops. Insurance pay-outs were not
based on either production or price but on rainfall falling below a drought
threshold on a regional basis.
This way, very
poor smallholder farmers, many of whom are women, have access to a safety net.
Insurance underwriters know that farmers are making the investments that will
make the land more resilient and more productive in the face of climate change.
Governments know that the payouts don’t distort the markets. And the whole
agricultural system better serves the common good.
When the Farm
Bill comes up again for reauthorization in 2012, I hope we might take a few
lessons from the community-minded Ethiopians. We need policies that can support
a food system where all stakeholders have a voice, where certain crops are not
favored over others, and where participation requires attention to the long-term
health of the planet and people.
Jim French is a
farmer from Kansas who also works on agriculture policy for Oxfam America.