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Published February 08, 2010, 04:00 AM

AG AT-LARGE: Bonding with Becky

FARGO, N.D. — The recent KMOT Ag Show was another eye-popping eye-opener for me. Always is.

By: MIkkel Pates, Grand Forks Herald

FARGO, N.D. — The recent KMOT Ag Show was another eye-popping eye-opener for me. Always is.

I’ve been at this for some time now, but there always is a new wrinkle. One of the most fascinating re-awakenings I had at this year’s show was sitting in on an informational seminar on crop insurance policy.

Becky Braaten, vice president of insurance services for Farm Credit Services of North Dakota, offered a wide-ranging perspective steeped in critical analysis on behalf of both her farmer-clients and her cooperative. Instead of a simple set of rules, there were a dizzying set of unknowns, options, exceptions and provisos.

Farmers soon will be spending “bonding” time with their crop insurance agents, Braaten said, with a hint of sarcasm. She occasionally refers to this fresh pile of gobbledygook as “job security” for insurance agents.

Indeed. There was a murmur of agreement in the room, but nobody was laughing. I got the feeling she didn’t expect it.

I asked myself: How can all of this be so confounded complicated?

I wasn’t alone.

One 60-something farmer in the room wondered out loud if he needs to hire another person on his farm just to keep track of the paperwork. He commented about the challenge of getting several equipment operators of varying skill levels and ages to realize the importance of all of this paperwork. He wonders if anyone in Washington understands how a harvest actually works.

“Our first job is getting the crop off the field,” he said, without having to tell others in the room that this is no small trick. If you don’t believe him, all you have to do is drive across the state and see all of the corn still in the field.

Profits, loopholes

As I staggered out of this session, nursing a new headache, I recognized a fellow by one of the booths. Soon, we were talking about old times and old policy battles in agriculture.

Eventually, he looked both ways and then asked me if I’ve ever looked into the crop insurance business. Excessive profits, he said, smiling ruefully. Look at the big paychecks for agents in 2008, he said, and hinted that it was obscene that people may have made $500,000, $750,000 or more, labeled as a “farm program,” when it simply was feathering an insurance manager’s nest.

That’d be a good story.

Later, at a local fast food place on my way out of town, I met up with a western North Dakota farmer whom I’d met earlier at the show. This late-50s guy asked me if I wanted to sit down and chat while he ate a taco before he headed homeward in the snow. We talked for a couple of hours.

Yes, there are loopholes in crop insurance, he allowed. But perhaps there need to be. Not all farmers are entirely honest, he said. Some are cheaters — and proud of it.

Hey, there was someone he knew in his own family who had the brass to brag about how he routinely breaks rules when it comes to technology agreements with seed companies. The guy cleans seed himself and buys just enough new seed to avoid suspicion. He doesn’t even have the shame to shut up about it.

A crop insurance program that is so vital to the farm economy’s stability that it is too important to lose because of cheating, we agreed. But as long as there are cheaters like that, there will be ever-bigger piles of rules and policy changes in areas such as crop insurance.

More bonding time for Becky and others like her.