Farmer faces insurance risk over cover crop practices

Feb 22, 2013

Gail Fulr may find himself being punished for farm and soil stewardship practices that have won him praise.

That would be a disappointment to those who fervently believe proper care for the soil—above all things— should be rewarded.

The extended drought, crop-insurance rules, stewardship practices to build organic matter in soil, and conflicting USDA agencies’ dictums are all crossing paths in a bad way for Fuller, a 50-year-old grain and livestock farmer from Emporia, KS.

While there are guys out there sitting on a lot of land equity, Fuller isn’t necessarily one of them. He faces the possible loss of his farm because of cancellation of his crop-insurance policy on the 2012 crop. Fuller is an enthusiastic advocate for protecting the land from erosion and building organic matter back into the soil. But his planting practices in 2012 got crossways with a USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) crop insurance rule requiring cover crops to be terminated before cash crops are planted.

Fuller lost his policy on some of his fields because he planted soybeans and other cash crops on his 1,800-acre farm before terminating his mix of cover crops. RMA has required such cover-crop terminations. Fuller left cover crops growing, ranging from days to weeks, after he had planted the spring crops, before he could spray to kill the cover off.

“We had day after day last spring of sustained winds and there was just nothing we could do,” he said.

Yet, it was also so dry some of the covers never developed into a stand, either.

One field also was canceled because of bad management practices for failing to attempt to control weeds. Fuller argues he had applied a double rate of herbicide on that group and a residual herbicide. Yet, weeds grew and it became too windy to apply more herbicide after planting the soybeans. A custom applicator had sent customers such as Fuller a letter advising them not to spray in July and August.

A cover crop enhances soil organic matter in a field. However, for RMA it’s a question of whether the cover crop also takes moisture and nutrients away from the insured cash crop, thus harming it.

Over the past couple of years, Fuller’s cover crops would include mixes such as radishes, turnips, kale, clover, alfalfa, millet, oats, cereal rye, triticale, sunflower or flax.

In late July of last year, Fuller was informed by his insurer that he had to undergo a growing-season inspection. He was later informed that his policy had been canceled. He hadn’t terminated his cover crop before planting his cash crop. Fuller has now applied with the insurance company for remediation, but he’s also challenging USDA’s RMA over the validity of the rule.

“We decided to appeal it on the approach that the rule was wrong,” Fuller said.

Fuller said the policy cancellation has become an opportunity for soil-health researchers and advocates for no-till farming and cover crops to educate RMA about the value of the practices.

Award-winning steward

Fuller’s farm has been used for tours by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He had a field day in July that drew 55 people from 10 states and even a few people from Ukraine. Just last week, Fuller was one of three farmers selected by the American Soybean Association (ASA) as a Conservation Legacy Award winner. Leaders of No-Till on the Plains nominated Fuller for that award last year. Like another award winner from Indiana who uses cover crops, Fuller was honored, according to ASA, because of “a heavy emphasis on soil health including continuous no-till, utilizing cover crops and maximizing microbes. He always looks for ways to reduce inputs. Fuller is working to rebuild the quail population and has added a livestock component to his farm.”

Fuller is spotlighted on the Farm Aid website as well.

Yet, Fuller’s struggles also prove the rule that agriculture is a high-risk operation dependent on the blessings of good weather. He began aggressively implementing no-till practices in the mid-1990s after a flood gouged away his topsoil. Still, he has faced repeated struggles with weather disasters in a state that has high weather volatility. “If there is a mistake out there to be made, I’ve made it,” Fuller said.

No-till farming and cover crops are being advocated more by NRCS as part of a soil health campaign that kicked off last fall. NRCS conservationists say a 1 percent increase in organic matter builds the soil’s waterholding capacity by as much as 19,000 gallons an acre. No-till farming and high residue will increase rainfall infiltration as well. NRCS staffers at the No-Till on the Plains conference held several rainfall absorption and soil stability tests week explaining how that works. As if to tout Fuller’s case, his soil was used in some of the tests as a good example.

“Farmers who do this type of conservation do not fit well with our insurance,” said Ray Archuleta, an NRCS soil-health specialist, in his keynote address at the No-Till on the Plains conference this week in Salina.

“That has to change. We have to reward those who are stewards to the planet.”

Drought lingers in Kansas



All of Kansas remains in a moderate drought or worse. Lyon County, where Fuller is from, was first declared a drought disaster in September 2011. Last July, Lyon County was one of 82 counties in the state of Kansas first declared as a drought disaster for 2012. By the end of the July last year, all of Kansas was in a severe drought or worse.

“We’re starting on the third year of drought,” Fuller said in an interview with DTN last summer. “It’s very easy to crawl back into your comfort zone.”

So far, RMA shows crop insurers in Kansas have paid out $1.28 billion in claims on 2012 crops, compared to $1 billion in 2011.

But insurers in the state have paid on 65,400 claims for 2012, which is about half the number of claims filed in 2011. It’s difficult to determine how many claims in Kansas are not yet paid.

Wildlife group advocates for Fuller

Brian Lindley said No-Till on the Plains leaders have asked RMA to provide research on how the agency is making some changes about cover crops. No-till and cover crop supporters have been submitting research to the agency as well. “There have been some real challenges with it,” Lindley said.

After learning about Fuller’s case, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has gotten involved. NWF is an advocate for farmers leaving crop residue and planting cover crops due to habitat benefits. So when the group learned that some crop insurers and RMA were using strict rule guidance, the group got involved. NWF brought Fuller and ecologist Jill Clapperton to Washington to visit with USDA officials and members of Congress about the issue.

“Cover crops, at a minimum, do not increase risk and in many situations they decrease risk and increase yields,” said Ryan Stockwell, who does agricultural outreach for the wildlife federation.

Fuller was encouraged by the conversations with USDA officials and members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee staffs. Still, Fuller’s indemnity and possibly the financial stability of his farm remain waiting on an appeal of his policy cancellation.

A spokesperson for a crop-insurance industry group directed questions to RMA. In a response to questions from DTN, RMA stated that changes have been made to provide farmers more flexibility regarding cover crops.

“We continue to work closely with NRCS and FSA to ensure that no farmer who follows good farm and conservation practices, especially the usage of cover crops, is ineligible for crop insurance,” RMA stated. “We will continue to make further improvements where necessary to accomplish that goal.”

RMA is trying to quantify the actuarial soundness of a producer’s farming operation, and that is made more complicated by sustained drought. But over the past year, RMA

sought to improve its stance for farmers who use covers. The agency also worked to encourage farmers to plant cover crops last fall on acres considered damaged or destroyed, citing that it would not affect 2013 spring crops.

Advocacy for covers is growing

Local and state officials in various capacities are now advocating for farmers to grow more covers largely because of the effects cover crops have in reducing dust storms and improving water quality in rivers and streams. An increasing number of states pay farmers or provide cost-share for cover crops in parts of the Chesapeake Bay or Mississippi River basins.

Thus, producers who grow cover crops are questioning how a farmer can lose his insurance policy for protecting the soil from erosion while bare fields are not penalized.

“The big picture here is how is that (cover crops) not a best-management practice, but letting your soil blow all over the place is OK?” said North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, whose farming practices won him an award last year from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Fuller believes USDA should be recognizing farmers who are doing everything they can to reduce and minimize soil erosion. Fuller said federal policy should place heavier emphasis on minimizing soil loss than allowed under current erosion standards.

“If we don’t change what we’re doing, my grandkids are going to have to learn to farm on a rock,” he said. — Chris Clayton, DTN