An Unusual Opportunity

A call from a total stranger this spring led me to a very unusual opportunity. The company was preparing to bid on a contract to do research for the USDA, Risk Management Agency. The goal was to determine why farmers in certain states buy very little crop insurance. The ultimate purpose was to develop a means for delivering information that would allow them to be better prepared to make risk management decisions.

The call came at 8 A.M. on a Monday morning in May. The proposal had to be submitted by 10 A.M. on the following day. The proposed compensation was enough that I was willing to do everything possible comply with the deadline. The miracle of electronic communication makes such rapid response easy. A surprise came when I was asked to send a photo for the written proposal. When I returned the call, the individual responded that she was going to use the cover photo from my web site.  I asked if a portrait done in a suit and tie would be more appropriate. She said that suits are plentiful in Washington D.C. but that a real live farmer would make a better impression.

I guess it must have worked, because in a few days I was informed that the contract had been awarded. The original plan was to conduct two focus groups each in 15 states and get them all done by September 15. That was too ambitious for the time allowed.

My official title was “Farm Insurance Specialist”. I was also the only one in the project that had “training” listed as one of the functions. When we had our first conference call, I was informed that I had been hired as a “cultural laisson”. In other words, it was my job to make sure that the farmers understood what the researchers were talking about and vice versa.

The ultimate process boiled down to my going to Reston VA for the last planning meeting where we finalized the discussion guide. I was scheduled to facilitate a meeting in Rochester, NY on Wednesday, September 12 followed by four meetings in New England the following week. The terrorism on September 11 eliminated our meeting in New York.  The CEO sent her husband to Nebraska to get me in a private airplane on September 17 to avoid my having to land in Boston. My return trip was planned to leave from Providence, a much smaller and less congested airport.

We flew into Concord, NH for the first meeting. I was ready to turn around and go back to the Midwest. I thought that the sparsity of farms would explain why there is so little crop insurance sold in New England. I had a job to do, so I stayed. We did focus groups in Concord, New Hampshire, Windsor, Connecticut, Warwick, Rhode Island and Holden, Massachusetts. In the four days I was there, I saw absolutely no farming. However, the farmers who attended the meetings represented a tremendously diverse number of crops.

The differences between agriculture in New England and the Midwest are truly startling. Most of us in the Corn Belt never think about the kinds of problems experienced by those farmers. The small number of farms in the area makes the distance between support services like implement stores, grain elevators and fertilizer dealers much greater. I each state, the farmers expressed the opinion that the FSA offices represent the last contact with advice from outside. The Cooperative Extension Service is no longer in most counties. Farm Bureaus are at the state level. Some school districts still have agriculture departments, but they do not serve persons who are out of school. The function of the FSA office is much different that in the Midwest. In one of the meetings each of the counties had only one grain farmer.

Crop insurance is a tough sell because the policies are so complicated. Production takes place at all times of the year, some of which do not fit the government deadlines.  Products may be sold to other farmers, wholesalers and direct to the public. Risks vary with the variety of crops. New and innovative insurance products are available but difficult to figure out.

This trip was an enlightening experience. I was ready to begin harvest on my own farm by the time I got home. I always enjoy visiting with other farmers, even if they produce clams or blueberries. I was happy to make the trip. I will be anxious to learn if anything positive comes of the information we learned.