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Cotton and grain farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley ask U.S. Congress for no-plant drought relief
Welasco, Texas
March 9, 2006

The clock is ticking for drought-stricken Lower Rio Grande Valley growers who plant cotton and grain sorghum on non-irrigated farmland. With no rain relief in sight, they are turning to Congress for help in a Catch-22 crop insurance situation.

If they don't plant, they say, they'll lose big. If they do plant for the sake of increased crop insurance, they risk creating dust-bowl like conditions.

Grain sorghum farmers in the McCook area of eastern Starr and western Hidalgo counties have invested on average about $70 per acre in preparing their land for planting, according to Dr. Luis Ribera, agricultural economist at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.

But without soil moisture, growers know seeds are not likely to germinate. If they decide not to plant, the "prevented," or no-plant, clause of their crop insurance program will pay only about $30 per acre.

For farmers like Ted Prukop of the McCook area, who farms about 1,200 acres, not planting is no option losses would be too great.

"This crop insurance program is written for the entire nation," Prukop said. "It doesn't fit in down here in our subtropical area where we have to work the ground year round. It's not like in Kansas where the ground freezes right after harvest and isn't worked by the farmer until he's ready to plant again."

Ribera, who crunched the numbers for local growers, agreed.

"No-plant crop insurance does not take into account the many expenses growers here make for months in preparing their land for planting," he said. "These are expenses growers in other parts of the country don't have. It's important that these growers get paid more not to plant because, as it is now, it is not economically viable not to plant."

Lacking that, if Prukop and his neighbors plant for the sake of getting full-coverage insurance payments, they risk disturbing the soil and creating dust bowl-like conditions on land that hasn't seen significant rainfall since October.

And full coverage does not mean payment on 100 percent of the value of their crop, Ribera said. If a crop won't make a stand or emerge from the soil, crop insurance pays growers 65 percent of the value of a crop, based on historical yields and a preset value per bushels of grain sorghum or pound of cotton lint.

Adding pressure to the situation is the calendar. To qualify for federal crop insurance and avoid penalties for planting late, growers here have to plant by March 31.

"We need an answer pretty quick," said Prukop. "It takes me about 10 days to plant. That means I have to make a decision whether to plant by March 21. Every farmer out here knows when they have to start planting to beat the March 31 deadline."

But planting could prove disastrous, farmers say. Above-average heat and high winds during the fall and winter months has dried out McCook-area topsoil in an area where about 62,000 acres are planted annually to grain sorghum, Prukop said.

"Planting will only disturb the soil, pulverize it and allow it to be picked up by the high winds, cutting and raising more soil as it blows,"

he said. "That could lead to large scale land erosion and jeopardize farming here in the future."

In a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Propok and nine other McCook-area farmers asked Congress to increase the prevented planting coverage by 35 percent. The supplementary payment would allow growers to recoup 81 percent of the costs growers have made in preparing to plant.

"Most importantly," the letter states, "this would give us as producers the incentive not to plant. This is a win-win for the farmer and the Risk Management Agency, for they would have reduced total indemnities (insurance payoffs)."

According to figures compiled by Ribera and submitted to Johanns, the government could save almost $600,000 by raising no-plant payments versus paying farmers for total losses, while avoiding risks to the environment.

"Unless growers have a reasonable incentive not to plant," the letter states, "we will be forced by economics to plant in order to collect more of a crop insurance indemnity. When we do plant, the consequences will almost certainly be very severe soil erosion on our farms and the inevitable dust storm will devastate our neighbors near and far, wildlife and the environment as a whole."

Prukop said related agribusinesses also are being affected because growers are delaying operations.
"This is no fun for anybody," he said. "We don't want to make a living from a disaster program. In fact, if it rained several inches right now, I'd delay planting and take the penalties because I'd rather make a crop than get an insurance payment. But rain is just not in the forecast."

Writer: Rod Santa Ana III

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