Small Family Farms and Natural Disasters: Natural Disasters Disproportionately Hurt Small Farms, but Should the Government Care?

By Gough, Luisa Lloyd | Brigham Young University Law Review, July 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Small Family Farms and Natural Disasters: Natural Disasters Disproportionately Hurt Small Farms, but Should the Government Care?


Gough, Luisa Lloyd, Brigham Young University Law Review


Summer of 1995 was a year for the record books in Hermiston, a small farming community in Oregon famous for its watermelons.1 Those old enough for memories will not forget the major hailstorm that hit. It was brief, only fifteen minutes, and left no fatalities.2 But the local crops were a complete loss, most notably the famous watermelons, and damages were in the tens of millions of dollars.3 The storm was significant enough to cause many small family farms to go under. Fifth-generation farmer Brian Wolfe lost all his crops in fifteen minutes. in his words:

[W]e had that catastrophic event, and it was life-changing. I went from operating a farm of-being [sic] able to take some risk . . . to minimizing the risk. So after that, I didn't raise any more potatoes, myself. . . . And some of those other high-expensive crops that you can, if you get it you can do pretty good, and if you don't, why, there's always next year, but i didn't feel like i had next year.

. . . [I]t changed the way I operated 'til up to today's times.4

Natural disasters hit farms hard.5 With a commodity that relies on weather to succeed, a natural disaster can be devastating. In the United States, agricultural losses from disasters in 2017 were estimated at around $5.7 billion.6 Approximately 53% of the nation's sugar production was affected by natural disasters.7 Puerto Rico lost approximately 80% of its crop value. The island also suffered an estimated $1.8 billion in losses to its critical agricultural infrastructure.8 Although 2017 was a record year for natural disasters, the estimate is useful to highlight how much agriculture is affected by natural disasters.

Farmers are well aware of their reliance on weather and the lasting impact of natural disasters9 on their livelihood, but most lawmakers do not understand the significant consequences of disasters on farmers' lives. There is minimal government disaster aid for farmers after disasters.10 The majority of states have no programs in place to protect farmers after disasters, so existing financial support is federally funded.11 Federal Crop Insurance (FCI) and federal disaster relief bills, the main options, do not adequately cover the losses.12 For example, of the $81 billion in emergency funds approved in December 2017 by the House to provide relief after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as various 2017 wildfires, only $2.6 billion was reserved for losses to the agricultural sector.13 This amounts to less than half of estimated damages. Some farmers may have financial help if insured under federal programs, but coverage is limited, and damages can cause years of financial loss.14

Natural disasters affect small family farms differently than large corporate farms. Financial losses from disasters can be absorbed by large corporate farms because they can more easily distribute risk. Unfortunately, small family farms often fall by the wayside. On small family farms the "operator and family provide[] over half the labor, management, and equity capital."15 These farms typically engage in more "localized, small-scale, agricultural operations."16 The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) divides small family farms into three main groups: (1) farms with an operator who has a primary occupation other than farming; (2) farms with an operator whose primary occupation is farming (these include farms of low sales, less than $150,000, and moderate sales, $150,000 to $349,000); and (3) retirement farms.17 Within the context of this Note, small family farms generally refers to the second type, those with gross cash farm income less than $350,000 per year. This category of farms comprises 90% of all U.S. farms.18 These are high-risk ventures.19 Typically, farmers go into debt in the spring for a payoff in the fall. They operate with small profit margins that are susceptible to significant loss from a variety of factors, including natural disasters.

Corporate farms are better equipped to survive natural disasters than small family farms. …

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