RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Crop insurance is America's biggest farm subsidy. And as the drought drags on, farmers in the Midwest are calling their crop insurance agents. So today, our Planet Money team introduces us to this one corner of the farm economy that just became extremely relevant. Here's NPR's Chana Joffe-Walt.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: Crop insurance agents are an amazing group of people to get to know. It's in the job description, or something. You have to be charming; you have to wear a polo shirt, preferably that depicts a hobby; you need to known by a nickname - Shorty, Rube, or in Don Biefelt's case, Dizz. Don - or Dizz - is 82 years old and lives in Anchor, Illinois.
DON ''BIZZ'' BIEFELT: I started out by writing all of the stuff - cars, and all that Mickey Mouse stuff - with a briefcase. And then I've - got into a niche market of basically, crop insurance
JOFFE-WALT: Don sells crop insurance to farmers in Anchor, and all the little towns nearby. He's a fan of talking; also, asking himself questions that he then proceeds to answer.
BIEFELT: Crop insurance: The only advantage and - different about crop insurance, than any other insurance, is what? All the prices are the same. It makes no difference what company, or anything; all the prices are the same.
JOFFE-WALT: All the prices are the same because the U.S. government sets the rates. Crop insurance is a very peculiar business because the government - meaning, you and I - spend about $7 billion a year on it. We pay private insurance companies to sell crop insurance. We pay farmers to help them buy their policies. And then the government sets the rates, which Don says for an insurance guy, makes things really weird because you can't compete on price.
BIEFELT: And that's unusual. Usually it's a price war, you know, sometimes. So what's left? Service.
JOFFE-WALT: And this, it turns out, is why crop insurance agents tend to be these powerful personalities. That's their job - to get your attention, and then win your affection. That's all they've got to work with. So when you sit down with Don on Anchor, Illinois' one public bench, he is the most interested, friendly neighbor you could ever imagine.
BIEFELT: That's Mr. Lee Clemers. He's one of my insureds - right there, working on that truck. His wife just had her gallbladder out, so she...
JOFFE-WALT: Don knows everyone - Jon Mauk, over there in the first house, he says; Brian Simpson, down at the end. He knows their mothers, their nicknames, their wife's digestion problems.
BIEFELT: I never have made a nickel on advertisement. Isn't that weird?
JOFFE-WALT: But Don has competition. There are 16,000 crop insurance agents in the U.S. right now, selling an identical product to farmers; although for Don, competition is extremely local - 12 miles down the road.
BRENT ''HONDO'' HONNEGER: Brent Honneger. And I say, I know crop insurance as well - or better - than anybody out there.
JOFFE-WALT: Brent is also a talker, also wears polo shirts, also knows everyone, and has a nickname - Hondo. In other words, it's very hard to see what Brent has to offer that Don does not, although the morning I meet him, he has organized a Q&A session for farmers, on how to file a crop insurance claim. And it is a big hit.
HONNEGER: Come on in; grab a cup of coffee.
JOFFE-WALT: Brent invited a bunch of Don's clients to this event - just in case, he says, they're not getting all their questions answered with Don. And then he makes sure to stand by the door, and personally greet each farmer.
HONNEGER: Like this guy - he's an awesome golfer.
UNIDENTIFIED FARMER: Ah, you playing tomorrow?
HONNEGER: No, what's the - what's tomorrow?
JOFFE-WALT: Imagine if your car insurance agent knew your favorite hobbies, foods, the names of your children; and when you had a question, he or she would come to you, at your convenience. All the farmers in this room tell me, that's just how crop insurance agents are. And Brent says it makes for stellar customer loyalty. Once you get a client, they never leave. But it also means it's impossible to win over new clients. There's this one guy he's been trying to poach from Don, for decades.
HONNEGER: But he's like, you know, I go to church with Don and, you know, I see him every Sunday.
JOFFE-WALT: Brent says he's always gracious about this. But he will occasionally mention that Don's been doing this for a while, and does he even own a computer?
HONNEGER: Does he mail everything still? And - like reporting claims, he calls them in; and he's operating like we operated 20 years ago, so - back when he was 63.
JOFFE-WALT: Government subsidies for crop insurance have set the stage for thousands of tiny popularity contests, in small farming communities all across the country. And right now, in the worst drought since 1956, most farmers have generous insurance coverage. And I can confidently report, they're getting very good service.
Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.