The Right Response
April 16, 2021
Today, a quick note on history, our present situation, and insights from a top leader in the private sector on what challenges may lay ahead for Federal crop insurance.
Congress first authorized Federal crop insurance in the 1930s along with other initiatives to help American farmers and ranchers recover from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. For a government program to survive more than 80 years is remarkable and certainly a testament to its effectiveness.
It has undergone many changes over the years, but without a doubt the structure of Federal crop insurance today as a public-private partnership is truly key to its success. As an agency of less than 400 employees, we simply could not effectively service all policies nationwide as the private sector is equipped to do. And as the program needs oversight and monitoring by an impartial party, that is where the government, RMA, plays a vital role. This working relationship is one of the most successful partnerships there is.
We work with our partners in the private sector to develop new policies, learn from each other, and work together to respond to natural disasters and catastrophes such as the current global pandemic. I know I am not alone in recognizing the importance of our partnership with the private sector in meeting the present challenges.
I had an opportunity to talk with Tom Zacharias, President of National Crop Insurance Services, a non-profit trade association which represents Approved Insurance Providers (AIPs) of Federal crop insurance, to get his thoughts on our relationships with approved insurance providers, and our combined response to COVID.
Richard: What were some of the biggest challenges the pandemic posed to Approved Insurance Providers?
Tom: Fortunately, the major 2020 March Sales Closing Date for producers purchasing crop insurance had just passed as pandemic protocols were being implemented. That said, AIPs responded to pandemic protocols within their own organizations; they established operational protocols across their crop insurance agency force and their farmer customer base in rural areas where broadband capacity was and is still limited; and lastly, like everyone else, they made the necessary, yet no less difficult, transition with home and family.
Richard: What were some of the keys to overcoming the challenges?
Tom: First, early designation of agriculture and insurance as essential industries. Second, the stability and reliability of multiple (and inexpensive) virtual meeting platforms and the ability of large organizations to easily transition to the use of this technology. And lastly, and most importantly, at the outset, RMA and the AIPs established a weekly series of conference calls in response to the situation. During these calls, information was exchanged, guidance was sought, and written guidance was provided in a timely manner.
Tom Zacharias, President of National Crop Insurance Services Inc.
Richard: We aren’t out of the woods with COVID yet, what do you feel may be challenges moving forward?
Tom: I believe a fundamental challenge will be striking the balance between our year-long pandemic environment and stepping “out of the woods” into the “clearing.” I believe many of us were amazed by how much business activity could be conducted in the virtual environment. How much of the “pandemic” behavior will be retained for the sake of efficiency and cost savings? And how much “pent up” demand is there for business travel and face to face meetings? We will have to sort this out.
Richard: How can we best meet the challenges you mentioned?
Tom: Communication is always essential. Open and frequent communication is how we successfully managed up to now. It will remain so going forward. Through the NCIS committee structure, the lines of communication with RMA remain open as the AIPs and RMA routinely meet to exchange information regarding conditions on the ground and determine any if further action needs to be taken.
Richard: Finally, do you feel the public-private partnership model continues to work well for Federal crop insurance?
Tom: Absolutely. The communications infrastructure, coupled with the network of subject matter experts that characterizes the modern-day crop insurance program, was put to the test during the course of 2020. The working relationship between RMA and the AIPs, along with the agency and adjuster forces, performed seamlessly throughout the year and, in addition, established the necessary protocols to continue to conduct business into the spring of 2021.
I am grateful to Tom for his time and insights. And of course, I look forward many more decades of working with our friends in private industry to provide effective, market-based risk management tools to strengthen the economic stability of producers and rural communities.
Both AIPs and RMA did an outstanding job the past year. Our employees worked to get 16 COVID bulletins published. And despite the pandemic, our Regional Offices had a 24.5% reduction in turnaround times for written agreements in 2020 while having a similar workload.
On a related note, USDA continues to provide relief to our nations farmers and ranchers who have struggled financially post-COVID through the American Rescue Plan, or ARP. The plan includes provisions for USDA to pay up to 120% of loan balances, as of January 1, 2021, for Farm Service Agency (FSA) Direct and Guaranteed Farm Loans and Farm Storage Facility Loans debt relief to any socially disadvantaged producer who has a qualifying loan with FSA. Please see our ARP resources posted online at www.farmers.gov.