The devastating drought of 1988 is still fresh on farmers' minds, and insurers say they're getting a bumper crop of business this year - a lot earlier than usual.
More than 100 million acres of farm land are expected to be insured this year, compared with about 75 million acres in 1988, says Gene Gantz, executive director of the American Association of Crop Insurers."It is a gigantic record," he said, adding that up to 150 million acres could be covered if conditions remain dry through the April 15 deadline for signing up for federally subsidized multi-peril crop insurance.
Rainfall has been in short supply so far this year, scaring many farmers who watched their fields and pocketbooks shrivel during last year's long, hot and dry summer across the Farm Belt.
The drought resulted in a $3.9 billion federal bailout.
"When the house burns down down the street, most people get out their homeowners policy to check and see if they're covered," Gantz said in a telephone interview from the Washington, D.C., office of the trade group. "And if you don't have a policy, you get one."
Gantz said some insurers already are reporting two to three times their normal farm business.
Joy Tegels, general manager of Agri-Business Insurance Consultants Ltd. in the central Iowa community of Nevada, said crop insurance business already is up 25 percent.
She said that in Iowa, where 44 percent of the crop land was covered by federal crop insurance last year, an estimated 60 percent of crops would be covered this year if there's no substantial rainfall soon.
"We have not (yet) seen the deluge we're going to see if the weather pattern stays the same," she said. "Our office will be like Sears, you'll have to take a number" to be served.
The selling point this year, said Tegels, is that people collected on federal crop insurance policies.
The Federal Crop Insurance Corp. reported paying claims of nearly $1.2 billion on $435 million in premiums collected last year, said Michael Forgash, a spokesman in Washington for the government-supported program. The program insures against drought losses and protects against insect infestation, plant disease, and damage from hail, winds and flooding.
The biggest payout to any state went to North Dakota, where $550 in claims were paid for every $100 in premiums collected, covering a total of $187.1 million in damages.
Iowa ranked second, with $127.7 million, or $320 in claims for every $100 in premiums collected.
Congress has warned that it won't be so willing to stage a rescue this year for those who failed to insure themselves against losses last year.
"I wouldn't count on it in 1989," said Rep. Tom Tauke, R-Iowa.
Tauke said Congress was able to help drought-plagued farmers last year because there were "a couple of billion dollars to play with" after a miscalculation of the cost of the farm program, "and it was an election year."
Fueling the pressure to buy coverage was a requirement that those who received federal emergency assistance last year be insured this year.
Bankers, too, are demanding borrowers to carry drought policies as collateral on crop loans.
Federal crop insurance plans allow farmers to choose coverage that will pay the equivalent of 50 percent, 65 percent or 75 percent of the 10-year average yields on production.
Forgash said premium rates won't change this year as a result of last year's heavy claims. He said the system is not geared to reacting quickly to such payouts.
"It would be patently unfair to recover an entire catastrophic loss in one insurance year," he said.
The rush to insure apparently has not been affected by allegations last year that an insurance company had reneged on drought-insurance policies.