Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 21, 2012

Editorial: Peace of mind for farmers


---- — You can buy insurance for just about anything; your house and your car, of course, your cat, your boat, RV or SUV, acts of terrorism, earthquakes and floods, your life and your burial, crime or disability, your builder, your horse or against being kidnapped.

If you're a concert pianist or painter, you can insure your hands.

Up until now, only farmers who grow sweet cherries in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties could buy crop insurance to protect against disasters like the one farmers are facing this year. This month, that pilot program was expanded to five more northern counties — Antrim, Benzie, Manistee, Mason and Oceana.

Farmers who grow tart cherries, which are used for most baking applications and are usually the largest crop by far, can't buy any crop insurance at all. They can insure their tractor but not a crop worth tens of thousands of dollars.

That could soon change. According to Michigan U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on a "fast track" to make crop insurance programs available to all cherry farmers, sweet and tart, by 2014.

"It's big news," said Jim Bardenhagen, a Leelanau County fruit and vegetable grower who grows about 30 acres of cherries. "There's a lot of stress out there right now for growers."

For good reason. An unusually warm March that fooled fruit trees into pushing out blossoms much too early was followed by a series of frosts. The United States Department of Agriculture says the tart cherry crop was almost a complete loss, and losses of sweet cherries were estimated at 80 percent or higher.

Expansion of the insurance program is good news for farmers and the region's economy, and gives growers a risk management tool common among farmers who grow wheat, corn and other traditional crops.

A cherry industry official said some growers have sought crop insurance through the national Risk Management Agency, but the industry as a whole didn't make enough noise. Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, has helped, he said. The fact that cherries are under a federal marketing order, which guarantees purchase of a certain percentage of the crop at a price set by the federal government, complicated things, since it is a form of insurance. That has been worked out, he said.

The new program will offer farmers a way to handle years like this one and some peace of mind even when Mother Nature gets out of sorts.