Over the past decade, farmers in the Great Southern Plains have suffered the worst drought conditions since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. They've battled heat, dust storms and in recent weeks, fires that devoured more than 900,000 acres and killed thousands of cattle.
These extreme conditions are being fueled by climate change. But a new report from an environmental advocacy group says they're also being driven by federal crop insurance policy that encourages farmers to continue planting crops on compromised land, year after year.
"Dust bowl conditions are coming back. Drought is back. Dust storms are back. All the climate models show the weather getting worse," said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which released the report Wednesday. "You'd think the imperative would be on adaptation, so we don't make the same mistakes we did back in the 1930s."
But, Cox explained, a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill—the sprawling legislation that funds farming and nutrition programs—encourages continued degrading of the land, making conditions worse, especially in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas.
Federal crop insurance coverage is based on the average yields of a particular crop in a particular area, through a calculation known as the Actual Production History. Farmers pay for coverage and premiums based on this history and are guaranteed a payment level if their crops sell for less than the expected average. Under the 2014 law, farmers are allowed to throw out bad years in their calculations, which means they receive coverage based on good crop years only. That ignores the impacts of weather extremes aggravated by climate change.
Cox and other critics of the policy—known as the yield exclusion provision—say it artificially inflates the crop insurance payouts. Roughly 60 percent of federal crop insurance premiums are paid for by the government.
It also rewards farmers for planting on weakened, dust-blown soil. In the 20 counties most affected by Dust Bowl conditions in the 1930s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers can overlook eight years of bad production, and in two Colorado counties, as many as 16 years.
"The counties that can ignore the most bad years are the counties that are right in the heart of the old Dust Bowl," Cox said. "It's like having a car insurance policy that ignores accidents or ignores poor driving if you're constantly getting tickets."
The provision was tucked into the 2014 Farm Bill after cotton and wheat growers in the South and southern plains states pushed Congress for relief after several years of drought. In Oklahoma, home of then-House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, the 2013 wheat crop was the worst it had been in more than 50 years.
The EWG report said farmers across the country excluded more than 1 million acres of wheat in 2015, receiving $6.4 million in crop insurance payouts. But in some areas of Oklahoma the yield exclusion provision has backfired.
"It looked good on paper. It looked like it was going to be a windfall, but that's not how it turned out," said David Gammill, a wheat grower, crop insurance agent and member of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, who is from the southwestern part of the state. "It lets them back out those really bad years, but jacks up their premiums so they can't justify paying it. No one has used it down in this part of the country."
Still, farmers in the southern plains say they need help as they face yet another bad year.
"Over the last 10 years, we've been dealing with different weather patterns, extreme conditions, no doubt a long-term drought," said Mike Schulte, chairman of the commission. "We're in a situation right now where we need moisture and if we don't get any, we're going to be in real trouble this year."
Growers like Schulte and Gammill say they're hoping for better crop insurance—at reduced premiums—through the next Farm Bill, which is up for reauthorization in 2018.
But Cox and other critics say federal policy should instead reward conservation practices — such as planting cover crops that rebuild soil structure or planting trees that buffer against erosion. Similar practices were put in place after the disaster of the 1930s, eventually making the land productive again. The report said few farmers in the southern plains are employing them now.
"When people think of the Dust Bowl, they think of it as a drought. It was really about poor farming practices, plus drought," Cox said. "Absent the poor farming practices, it wouldn't have been the disaster it became."