On a recent spring morning in Vale, North Carolina, Martha Calderon sat at her kitchen table over a massive three-ring binder neatly packed with documents and forms. Her fingers flipped through the pages, their edges meticulously labeled. Martha knew where to find every document she needed in that binder, in her computer files and in a backup folder in her filing cabinet.
Martha and her husband are mid-scale farmers, growing tomatoes and peppers in Vale for almost ten years. Former migrant farmworkers, they now own some land and and lease a bit, too, totaling three large plots of crop production. Martha and her sister-in-law, Esmeralda Sandoval, also founded the Hispanic Women in Agriculture Cooperative so that Latina farmers in their region can work collectively to grow their businesses and increase their opportunities as farmers and landowners.
They are building a livelihood based on hard work and following the rules, keeping track of tedious documentation and applications, all the while working the land.
But so far, federal crop insurance and risk management tools have not worked in their favor.
“I spent a week without seeing the light of day,” Martha said of doing all the paperwork, “working on this so they can have all the files perfect and in order. You have the proof, and you sit there baffled. You have the loss, you show the loss, but you don’t get anything in return. One of the steps of risk management is that you’re supposed to put the risk on someone else. How can you put the risk on someone else and they don’t deliver?”
Federal risk management and relief programs provide crucial protection for family farms. However, farming is experiencing structural changes in ownership, products and markets, and federal disaster programs are falling behind.
The evidence pooled in Martha’s pepper fields, where large puddles of water remained stagnant after heavy rains halted the start of North Carolina’s growing season.
Last Wednesday, Martha and Esmeralda traveled with RAFI to Kansas City, Missouri, for the Whole Farm Federal Crop Insurance Meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate whole-farm revenue insurance in order to understand the needs of farmers, determine how to beneficially revise existing policies and to brainstorm new programs and solutions.
Martha and Esmeralda’s voices proved key in helping shape the discussion. There, the women expressed their concerns directly to the USDA Risk Management Agency’s senior staff.
“I was a migrant farmworker for seventeen years,” Martha told them. “I don’t want to go back to that. I love farming and owning my own business. I love what I do.”
She expressed her concern over the lack of clarity and action in current crop insurance programs.
“We just need to understand it.”
Through their cooperative, Martha and Esmeralda help other women in the same situation, or worse, to decipher insurance contracts. Yet, when a disaster strikes, they always come up void of real insurance.
“When you lose a car, they pay you the car’s value. If you lose $100,000, you should get $100,000. I don’t see how crop insurance is different from home insurance or car insurance,” Martha said.
“I once explained the situation to a friend, a farmer. I looked at her and she wanted to cry. You know the level of debt you’re in and you see those numbers. And you think, ‘what am I going to do?’ It’s a domino effect. If you don’t pay your farm credit loan on time, you don’t get the credit. I’m already in debt. If I lose my credit, I lose my business. And that’s what insurance is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be ensuring you that you can go forward. She and I both work on credit. There’s no way you can’t. These things are very expensive. And if you don’t pay, that means you don’t have the credit and you don’t have a livelihood.”
Martha Calderon (right) with her daughter on her farm in Vale, NC.