In “Dispatches from the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.


Now that Iowa has started to dry out from record flooding, farmers are looking to their fields and feeling the uncertainty of this year’s crop. For conventional commodity crop farmers, that feeling is fleeting; they can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that government-backed crop insurance and disaster assistance programs [PDF] will cover their losses. For Iowa’s alternative farmers, government-backed crop insurance is a pipe dream that requires them to be innovative in their risk management strategies.

Conventional commodity crop farmers can turn to the government for help in times of crop disasters, and with the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, disaster assistance has become a permanent program. This means that in addition to benefiting from government-subsidized crop insurance, commodity crop farmers will also have a government program to fall back on when “disaster” strikes (often in the form of drought or flooding). How these funds will be used in Iowa has yet to be determined as the regulations have yet to be written, but the USDA’s Risk Management Agency has started providing assistance to commodity farmers for how to deal with crop losses and to seek assistance.

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Where does this leave Iowa’s non-commodity crop farmers? Like the commodity crop farmers, the alternative farmers’ fields have been flooded (some organic farmers report lower flooding levels because of the higher water-holding capacity of soils farmed organically), and they will experience the mix of lower production, delayed harvests, and flat-out crop loss that result from the devastating floods. But they don’t have the government watching their backs.

Jan Libbey and Tim Landgraf run a Community-Supported Agriculture operation, One Step at a Time Gardens, in North Central Iowa. In a CSA, customers pay the farmer through purchase of a share at the beginning of the season and receive a weekly delivery of fresh, seasonal produce. This exchange works as a form of risk-sharing for the farmer, who has the assurance of demand and payment for the crops throughout the season. Jan and Tim have six acres in vegetable production to supply a 112-member CSA, two weekly markets, and wholesale orders.

For Jan and Tim, the heavy rains and subsequent flooding mean that there will be a significant reduction in the supply of early season crops; the total radish harvest, which normally yields over 600 lbs. of radishes per year, plummeted to just 45 lbs. this season. Other crops that have experienced failure include spinach, lettuce, Asian greens, and sweet potatoes. The green and fall onions, broccoli, peas, and first two plantings of green beans are slow to mature and along with the later season crops — tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant — will have a later-than-planned harvest. This is the first time in their 13 years of running a CSA that Jan and Tim have experienced crop damage this pervasive.

In the face of such crop loss, Jan and Tim have very few options. They do not have crop insurance because they are not eligible for it. Crop insurance covers commodity-crop production, not family-run CSAs that produce 50 varieties of crops in a season. Even organic farmers who choose to grow commodity crops are at a disadvantage, having to pay higher premiums than conventional farmers and be valued at a conventional rather than organic price. Alternative farmers like Jan and Tim will also unlikely be eligible for the government’s new permanent disaster program.

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Jan and Tim have had to ask their CSA members to make good on their willingness to share the risk inherent in farming. They suspended their CSA deliveries for one week so that they could focus on weeding and replanting the crops that were damaged. This is not a decision they made lightly; months of planning, numerous calculations, and multiple Excel spreadsheets go into making sure that they produce enough to supply all of their demand consistently throughout the season, without the help of extension agents. There is also the risk that first-time members, experiencing a total bust year right away, will opt-out next year and miss out on the boom years. Jan and Tim plan to compensate their members later on in the season for the current delay, but like the many Midwestern farmers, they expect the impact of the floods to be felt throughout the entire season.

Farming is a risky business for both conventional and alternative farmers. While consumers already take on the risks of conventional commodity crop production by paying taxes, the decision of whether or not to support a more environmentally-responsible and healthy food system is left up to the consumer. While the option of an alternative at the cash register or farmers’ market is an important first step, it is not enough, especially if government programs discriminate so blatantly against non-conventional farmers and many people cannot afford healthy foods.

While crop insurance and disaster assistance do not make for entertaining dinner conversation, they are the nuts and bolts of farming that ultimately determine whether a flooded farm sinks or swims. As the USDA begins the arduous task of writing regulations for the programs in the 2008 Farm Bill, supporters of alternative agriculture must make their voices heard through comment-writing, participation in state technical committees, and advocacy efforts at the local and regional levels.

When the next 500-year flood hits Iowa (based on past flooding, 15 years from now?), the alternative farmers must not be left to drown.