Crop insurance: George Harris specializes in offering farmers security

September 2010 Posted in Business, People

By Kathy Cook HunterWhether growers raise nursery stock, grain or fruit, weather damage can wipe out a crop. George Harris sells insurance for coverage against financial loss.

For those people jokingly called “out standing in their fields” – the crop-growing farmers of Oregon – George Harris is an important fellow to know and do business with.

A Silverton resident, Harris specializes in selling crop insurance, a program originated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and overseen by its Risk Management Agency.

“It was part of the Farm Bill in the 1930s, a safety net organized after the Depression and the Dust Bowl,” said Harris. “It was initially for (the country’s) main crops – wheat, corn and soybeans. Over the years the program has evolved and now is part of Congress’s Farm Bill every four years.”

Crop insurance premiums are subsidized by the Federal Government and sold by 16 companies in the United States. “The premiums are all set,” Harris said, “and it comes down to how the companies service the policies. In Oregon any licensed P&C (property and casualty) agency can sell it, but not many do because selling crop insurance takes a certain amount of expertise.”

Four years ago Harris began selling six different companies’ crop insurance as a representative of the Northwest Farm Credit Services agency in Salem. Every year he goes to classes to update his knowledge. He must work with and understand an 800-page handbook.

“It’s important that claims are handled correctly,” he said. “Random claims are reviewed by RMA, and if a claim is inappropriately paid, the grower will have to repay that indemnity. Sometimes they can’t do it.”

Throughout western and southern Oregon, Harris personally calls on and works with farmers who grow many crops: grains, including wheat, oats and barley, nursery plants, sweet and silage corn, wine grapes, onions, processing beans, cherries, blueberries, apples, pears, other stone fruits and cranberries.

“What I like about the crop insurance program is that it stands on the farmer’s own crop production record, not the county’s average. If a farmer is just starting out, it’s based on a county’s average production for the insured crop,” he said.

“Right now I’m working with a lot of wheat farmers’ insurance,” Harris said. “Their deadline is Sept. 30 for the summer 2011 crop.” He noted many western Oregon grass seed farmers have turned to growing wheat in view of the low demand for grass seed during the current recession. However, “Wheat is the most risk prone because of possible rain damage, that and cherries.”

Harris has a wide background in farming himself. A native of Cottage Grove, he participated in FFA in high school, and he and his father managed a 60-head cow and calf business. He graduated from Oregon State University with dual degrees in agricultural engineering and animal science, and while in college interned at a hay and cattle ranch in Eastern Oregon as well as at a Eugene-area purebred Angus cattle business.

Before he branched out, Harris specialized in nursery crop insurance. He knows the nursery business well, having worked alongside his wife, Pati, in her Garden Thyme nursery for 10 years.

He emphasized that a crop insurance agent must be knowledgeable. “Typically, in the past growers signed up for ‘catastrophic’ insurance at $300 a year,” Harris said. “They were usually disappointed with any weather-related claims, and I want them to know there is a higher level of insurance that they can purchase.
When a claim does occur, they’re not as disappointed in the results.”

Change is in the wind, so to speak, in the current economic climate. Billion-dollar cuts to the 2008 Farm Bill will inevitably affect farmers, Harris said. “The cuts have not impacted the farmers yet,” he said, “but they could change how crop insurance is delivered to the farmer. The insurance companies may reconsider their involvement.”

Nevertheless, he finds crop insurance challenging. “My education is tied to agriculture; I love agriculture and being part of it. If I can help farmers manage their risk, I feel I am contributing to the success of agriculture in the Willamette Valley.”

“I consider this my dream job,” he said.

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