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Risk management for crop production is a critical component of a modern ag operation. While many operators use crop insurance, few understand even the basics of how it functions when things go sideways. Understanding this federally regulated program is important to the modern farm operator. It has come a long way since 1936 and is currently a booming industry of 13 companies insuring 120 different crop types to the tune of about 1.2 billion dollars of premiums being written.

While I am as a rule, dismissive of federal politicians, this one has a good sound bite a staffer no doubt put together for him:

“Through the crop insurance program, insurers can extend coverage to crops of all kind, providing farmers with the protections they need to do what they do best: grow food. It is a success story, and even if you are not a farmer, you have benefited from its existence. It has helped you receive more affordable food and helped American maintain its agricultural preeminence.”

-U.S. Representative Luke Messer.

The types of crop insurance are worth taking a peek at. Catastrophic coverage covers 50% of yield at 55% of the price and has a flat premium. Buy up coverage can be yield or revenue based and are calculated off historical proven yields or futures prices at planting and harvest calculated against a revenue calculated price.

Producers have to follow strict deadlines for reporting and sign up with no room to give for any circumstances. In the end, most crop insurance is traced back to the same source, federal government. These type of crop insurances are directly controlled by federal rules and not state or local rules.

Crop insurance for hail coverage is another critter all together. These are private products reinsured by companies that are backed by the feds but are regulated by state level government agencies.

When you disagree with the crop insurance adjuster’s determination, it is time to lawyer up. Attempting to work your way through federal regulations and rules by yourself is an invitation to disaster. The burden of proof is often on the operator and not the agency. The agency can find a myriad of reasons to deny a claim, to include lack of good farming practices. That term is not readily defined. You must make a claim within one year of being denied, no excuses and you must go to arbitration, not state court to resolve your claims. These are just a few examples of the deep morass that issue the world of disputed crop insurance claims.

Iowan’s have little direct contact with federal land regulators. Afterall, Iowa only has .3% that’s right three tenths of one percent of its land mass owned by the federal government. We have essentially no large active-duty military bases, forest reserves, grazing lands, or few national monuments that impact the land use decisions that private citizens make. In fact, the most federal contact Iowan’s have is probably through the USDA office for FSA and NRCS programs and crop insurance claims.

Other states are not so lucky. Consider Utah, which has over 60% of its land in its state owned by the feds. Feds, as you will no doubt be surprised to learn, do not pay taxes to the states on the ground they own. They do pay something called PILT (Payment in lieu of taxes) but it is not the same. Why is this a big deal, who cares? Well, if you are a county in Utah, you might have 5,000 people living in your county on 5% of the land. Hard to provide for essential services like fire protection, EMS, rescue, and sanitation when 95% of your land base is federal lands. Add in three million visitors to the federal lands per year and it becomes even more taxing… See what I did there? Taxing…

Federal officials in the west have noted that when somebody’s nose itches in Washington, people sneeze cough and gasp for air in the West. That is because of the power of the federal government has on affairs in the west because it owns so much of the ground.

Aside from the impact on locals, the federal government has a virtual alphabet soup of regulatory agencies that dictate who can do what on different types of federally owned land. The Bureau of Land Management controls some of the grazing on federal lands, but the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forestry Department, and Bureau of Indian Affairs all have seat at the table. Each of these regulatory agencies have to follow their play book as proscribed by the federal register via published rules and congressional acts. Environmental activist groups are keenly aware of this process and watch the promulgated rules, comment on them and lobby for changes that suit their missions and desires. Other groups should but sometimes fail to see the changes coming down the pike via regulatory rule. A good example is endangered species listing. Activists seek to enlarge the list of protected and endangered species as those on the list can isolate and take habitat out of other beneficial uses like grazing and mining.

Water is another property right that Iowa doesn’t really have to deal with the way other states sometimes do. Water rights in the west are not the same system we use in Iowa. Tell a western cattle producer that you irrigate right out of a river with no permit or restriction on gallons and watch their jaw drop.

Be aware of the west and the troubles it has with the federal government. The fed has broad sweeping powers to declare lands federal preserves, restrict private activities because of endangered species listing and establishing new federal facilities. Right now, Iowa is relatively clear of federal entanglements outside of Farm Service Agency programs but that is not a guarantee.

First it was wind and now solar is all the rage. Much like wind easements, solar farm easements are not to be taken lightly nor signed up for without due consideration.

Most of the of the time, the solar farm lease is an exploratory lease that signs up all your acres for a potential installation of solar. You can do quick math on the per acre amount if a farm is installed on your fields and see nothing but easy street ahead. A close reading of the actual terms and conditions could result in the solar farm optioning just a piece of your property and leaving you with an odd shaped parcel to farm around that grows palmer amaranth all season long and frustrates your remaining acres into less productivity, not more.

Here are some things to consider when contemplating your new bright sun shinny day.

  1. How long is the courtship? The developer may seek to simply tie up your acres under their umbrella and shade out the competition from offering a competitive lease.
  2. How long is the actual installation going to be on site?
  3. How much? Does the developer have to take the whole acres offered under contract or just sum? Can you impact the shape of the final solar farm? How much can they back off of their original leased footprint and shave your payments down?
  4. How about inflation? We know the dollar movie theatre in town had to finally move to $5.00 to stay with the times. If this is a 50-year lease, what is a deal today is a deal breaker down the road. Look for an escalator clause or an indexing mechanism to keep up with changing costs.
  5. Who gets the goodies? These farms have carbon credits, tax credits and other incentives to install. Who gets those, you or the developer?
  6. Who is going to clean this mess up? To the solar farm developer, what happens under the panels isn’t important, the sunshine is. Do they care about keeping weeds out of the under carriage of the solar array? Who can spray what and how do we keep the solar farm up to your standard are questions that need to be addressed? Also, who pays to take all this stuff away when its out of date and one or the company is bankrupt. A bond might be a great thing to ensure that money is available to sweep up the broken glass and twisted frames after the next straight-line wind puts the company out of business.
  7. How is this installation going to impact run off and sub surface drainage?
  8. Who is responsible for liability coverage on things going wrong on the solar farm?
  9. How will future bankers feel about mortgaging this property subject to these long-term leases?
  10. How do I get out of this lease if I can?
  11. Will my county zoning ordinance allow it?
  12. Who fixes things and who pays for damage to surrounding crops when equipment needs to come in to fix things? How is the crop damage calculated?

Every ag equipment operator has had it happen, a high dollar piece of equipment, with weather threatening on a weekend, is ground to a halt for a simple mechanical failure, like a shear bolt doing its job and well, shearing.

That simple break can bring a series of operations that rely upon each other to stand still unless another shear pin is available. Those are usually stocked after the first time a shear bolt strands the operation.

While shear bolts don’t physically manifest in other portions of an ag operation, they are metaphorically sure do. Taking time to identify in advance breaking points in an operation can cause you the pain and misery of threading a new bolt in the dark, with a little drizzle, while a semi waits to be loaded.

Hear are some “shear bolt” areas that your operation should be prepared to deal with

  1. The insurance companies do three things well, deny claims, delay claims, and defend claims. They have read your policy backwards and forwards a number of times and know distinctly what is and isn’t covered by their contract with you. Your agent is not responsible for you understanding your coverage, you are. When was the last time you looked at listed property items, valuations, costs of replacement and the like? After the storm is no time to get familiar with your coverage. Of particular note is a trend for insurance companies to demand all claims be submitted in a short period of time that doesn’t match up with traditional understanding of how long you have to bring an action. By contract, they can do this and by the contract you will be hung.
  2. Knowledge retention. Many operations have one person do the marketing for the operation, manage contract delivery dates, input deliver and pricing and coordination with third party vendors. What happens if that person leaves, quits, gets fired, or straight up just dies. Is it all on a cell phone that may or may not survive a car crash (or get impounded as evidence until the accident is fully investigated)? What are your redundant systems to pick up and move forward? Does anybody else know the truck driver’s cell phone number? Who is the guy who does the IT work for the operation and how do we get ahold of them?
  3. Title to assets. What was a great plan in 1995 (split ownership to avoid estate tax) is now an avoidable cost?  By changing from tenants in common or sole ownership to joint ownership you may avoid having to have two estates. You can’t expect your estate planning lawyer from 1995 to run you down and remind you, it is incumbent upon you to do a review of your documents and understand what is going on.
  4. Security in assets. Signing a general pledge of equipment and inventory to a lender is a big deal. It’s a promise that your equipment stands to pay for the operating note if the crop doesn’t. You selling items from that equipment line is a violation of that agreement and can expose you to financial responsibility that you could have avoided with a simple email or note to the lender about your plan to liquidate that old manure spreader. Likewise, you buying a tedder from a Facebook ad for cash may result in you having a tedder that is subject to a bank’s lien. The bank will get to come take that tedder and sell it to satisfy its lien and you are left with hunting down @genericironfordays to try to get your funds back. Better course of action is to do your research on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website and get a release from the lender that holds a security interest in that old iron.
Friday, February 23, 2024
  • Patrick B. Dillon
  • Jill Dillon
  • Tori Beyer
Dillon Law PC
Patrick B. Dillon enjoys finding solutions to legal issues and catching problems for clients. Pat practices in the Sumner office regularly represents clients in district, associate district and magistrate courts for agricultural, real estate, criminal and collection issues. He drafts wills and trusts, creates estate plans and helps clients through the probate process.
Dillon Law PC
Jill is a University of Northern Iowa undergraduate (Political Science Cum Laude) and a Drake University Law School graduate. Jill is a firm owner but not currently accepting private pay clients. Jill still has ties to her family farm operation which includes a dairy herd.
Dillon Law PC
Tori is a University of Iowa undergraduate where she double majored in Criminology, Justice, and Law and Ethics and Public Policy and a North Dakota Law School graduate. Tori practices in the Sumner office. Tori's areas of practice include but are not limited to estate planning, wills/probate, criminal defense, and civil litigation.

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