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Published September 10, 2012, 11:13 AM

Cattail tales

Should North Dakota farmers be able to collect prevent-plant crop insurance payments in 2012 on excessively wet acres, despite being in the middle of a drought?

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Should North Dakota farmers be able to collect prevent-plant crop insurance payments in 2012 on excessively wet acres, despite being in the middle of a drought?

Some North Dakota farmers and other officials think so. They say some crop insurance companies are unfairly refusing to recognize the prevent-plant, or PP, claims in 2012, even though they say the acres were too wet to plant.

Mike Clemens, a Wimbledon, N.D., farmer, has held leadership positions in corn and sunflower organizations in the state and nation. Clemens says some of his acres couldn’t be planted in early 2012 because of carryover saturation from the spring of 2011, adding that torrential rains last summer were a “new cause of loss” for spring planting this year.

Federal officials say the PP rules are applied on a case-by-case basis, and have not changed since a special provisions statement was published in November. That statement specified six provisions, the only new one being that the PP acre had to have been planted to an insured crop at least once in the past four years.

The statement applied to the prairie pothole states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa for PP eligibility, says Kathy Gilbertson, a senior risk management specialist for the agency regional office in Billings, Mont.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency published a bulletin in June that clarified the rules again, but did not change them. Gilbertson says the bulletin was prompted by complaints from farmers upset they were being denied in some cases.

One long-standing condition for denial is the presence of cattails or other water-loving plants on acres for which farmers have filed claims. “That’s been in our procedures since 2006,” she says. “It’s not new.”

Nearly 5.5 million acres were unplanted in 2011 in North Dakota because of excess moisture. As of Sept. 5, farmers in the state had reported 592,782 prevent-plant acres in 2012, according to the RMA. That number could change if claims are denied or if some additional acres are not yet processed into the system.

Still too wet?

Clemens says there are acres that legitimately should be compensated under PP rules because they’re still too wet.

“A lot of farms had 5 percent of their acres that still couldn’t get planted,” Clemens estimates. He says farmers paid prevent-plant insurance premiums on those acres and he listed rains between June and August in 2011 as the reason for a PP claim on his farms. “It was about 200 percent of precipitation for that time period,” he says.

Clemens is claiming acres that were planted in 2008, but the insurance company has told him the 2007 to 2008 crop year shouldn’t count because it was an abnormally dry season. But Clemens thinks that year may be more normal than recent wet years.

He says records show rainfall in the area in 2011 was 150 to 300 percent of normal. Gilbertson declines to comment on his specific case, but says these things are provable on a case-by-case basis.

Doug Goehring, North Dakota commissioner of agriculture, says he’s been trying to sort it out since June and that his phone has been “ringing off the hook.” He thinks RMA should stand behind the one-in-four year planting rule. He adds that cattails grow from blowing seed and can be established within a year’s time, so are not a reliable guide to determine what’s eligible for PP coverage.

Not automatic

Gilbertson says the one-in-four year provision got so much publicity that farmers misunderstood its significance.

“Just because you planted (in 2008 or subsequent years) doesn’t mean you automatically qualify in 2012,” she says, adding that the cause of loss for 2012 had to occur between March 15, 2011 and the end of June 2012.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., on Aug. 31, phoned RMA Administrator William Murphy and asked him to “honor the terms of the revised rules” for PP application in prairie pothole states of North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa. Nothing had changed as of Sept. 5, according to a Hoeven spokesman, who says about 30 farmers have been in contact with his office about it recently. The rule was “formerly applied inconsistently,” Hoeven says, adding that it “undermines the entire intent of last year’s program change.”

In North Dakota, Clemens says the situation is a problem from Minot to Devils Lake to Lisbon, where PP acres have been most prevalent.

Gilbertson says farmers have the option to sign the claim or not, and go to arbitration. The farmer would prepare a separate set of worksheets requesting the claim be paid as he or she would like. She says the normal precipitation period was considered 1970 to 2000 until it was updated earlier this year to 1980 to 2010, which increased normal precipitation by about an inch in North Dakota.

Clemens thinks that’s wrong. “We’d like a fair shake, right out of the chute,” he says. “We don’t want to go through appeals procedures with thousands of producers.”

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