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Southwestern farmers are being hit hard by the heat – and so are taxpayers

An aerial view of a dirt road running through a valley with alfalfa fields in Northern Nevada.
Adobe Stock
Farmland in the Southwestern U.S., such as this alfalfa field in Northern Nevada, is increasingly vulnerable to crop losses and damages due to extreme heat, according to a new Environmental Working Group study.

Rising temperatures across the Southwest are hurting farmers’ crops, and that’s escalating crop insurance costs for heat-related impacts, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group.

From 2001 to 2021, average annual temperatures rose in 212 of the 216 counties in six Southwest states: Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and California. During that 20-year span, EWG researchers found that more than half of those 216 counties also saw crop insurance payouts related to hot weather. In all, heat-affected farmers in the Southwest received more than $1.3 billion from the USDA's federal crop insurance program, which is heavily funded by taxpayers .

Heat caused the fourth-highest amount of crop insurance payouts in the Southwest during that period, the report shows. Nationally, heat-related payments were the sixth-largest category.

Anne Schechinger, an agricultural economist at EWG and author of the report, said the current crop insurance system is hurting taxpayers and farmers – and needs an overhaul.

The group's pushing for reform “to make sure farmers are being incentivized to adapt to climate change, and to make sure that the crop insurance costs aren't just going to be increasing exponentially as climate change gets worse,” Schechinger said.

One way to encourage climate adaptation and to protect taxpayers, she said, would be to reduce premium subsidies available for farmers using high-risk land vulnerable to low crop yields and weather events, like extreme heat. She added that the USDA’s Risk Management Agency could also factor in projections – such as weather, climate, and crop yields – when it creates premium prices for the program.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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