Organic farmers want the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation to add nitrogen-fixing and cover crops to the list of crops eligible for crop insurance in Manitoba.
That’s the message the Manitoba Organic Alliance (MOA) took to the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) board of directors and crop insurance officials during a meeting Feb. 15.
“They said they would take a serious look at it,” said Kentonarea organic farmer and MOA director John Finnie who attended the meeting. “I was fairly pleased with the reception that we got.”
The meeting was one of many MASC holds annually with farm organizations, said MASC president and CEO Neil Hamilton.
“We’ll take a look at things and see,” Hamilton said in an interview Feb. 25.
Organic wheat, oats and flax are already eligible for crop insurance in Manitoba. Insuring green manure crops – crops that are worked up before they mature to add nutrients to the soil for future crops – is a new concept for crop insurance, Hamilton said.
The closest existing coverage is for forage establishment where farmers get compensation if the forage crop doesn’t cover a percentage of a field. Determining whether a green manure crop has succeeded or failed would be different.
“We’ve never done anything exactly like that,” Hamilton said.
Planting green manure and nitrogen-fixing crops (perennials such as alfalfa or annuals such as peas or fababeans) are essential to organic crop production because organic farmers aren’t allowed to replace nutrient-depleted soils with synthetic fertilizers.
“We suggested one way to improve the bottom line on crop insurance was to enforce or encourage better rotations – ones that would include more green manures,” Finnie said. “The main problem facing organic producers is the same one facing conventional producers, which is fertility and weed control, except we (organic) have a lot less tools at our disposal than what conventional farmers do.”
More money has been paid out for claims against losses on organic crops than has been collected in premiums. While ideally, crop insurance premiums and payouts should break even over time, the situation with organic crops isn’t unique or uncommon, Hamilton said.
MASC only started offering organic coverage in 2005 and normally crop insurance coverage is based on 25 years of production history, he said.
“Over time the losses will get built into the premiums and coverage levels will get adjusted to where they should go naturally,” he said.
“We try as best as possible to make every crop stand on its own, but you can take a snapshot in time of any crop and they’re not exactly right on the average – some better, some worse.”
Organic coverage is based on each individual farmer’s yield experience, but generally coverage is lower than for conventional crops and the premiums are higher, Hamilton said.
MASC believes some organic farmers have stuck with conventional coverage. It’s unclear what, if any impact that might be having on the organic program, Hamilton said.
The organic coverage was introduced to reflect the fact that organic farmers often have more weeds in their crops than conventional farmers.
“Normally weeds are an uninsured cause of loss, but we have more tolerance for organic,” he said. “We consider excess weed growth to be a cause to reseed in organic, but not obviously in conventional.”
There are several reasons for MASC to continue insuring organic crops and add more, beyond the benefits to the insured farmers, Finnie said. One is the lessons that can be learned from organic production.
“In my mind it’s a cheap research program.
“I’m not convinced that the conventional way of farming is sustainable in the long term,” he said. “With oil prices going up and some of those nitrogen fertilizers that are dependent upon fossil fuels to make them they may get so expensive they are out of reach even for conventional farmers.”
Phosphorus is essential to food production, but it’s also finite. If organic farmers can find a way to recycle it efficiently, it will benefit all farmers, Finnie said.
While MASC considers most suggestions for improved crop insurance coverage, there’s a limit to what can be implemented each year, Hamilton said.
“We try to pick out a few we think we can do and then it all factors into the budget,” he said. “In the end it comes down to most of these things require budget dollars and that becomes part of the puzzle whether dollars are available.”
In 2011 crop insurance premiums will be up about 16 per cent because the value of insured crops is up and in 2010 insurance payouts exceeded the premiums collected, Hamilton said.
With most crops, farmers pay 40 per cent of crop insurance premiums, while the federal government covers 36 per cent and the province 24 per cent.
Program administration is paid entirely by government – 60 per cent Ottawa and 40 per cent Manitoba. [email protected]
– JOHN FINNIE