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Competing Against The Nicest Guy In Town

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For more: Why does the government subsidize crop insurance in the first place? We try to answer that question in our latest podcast.

The federal government spends about $7 billion a year on crop insurance for U.S. farmers. Policies are sold by private companies, but the government sets the rates, so the companies can't compete on price.

That means the guys who sell crop insurance have to find other ways to compete. They try to out-nice each other. They are very charming. They wear polo shirts depicting hobbies. They have fun nicknames. And they know everyone in town.

Don "Dizz" Biefelt is the most interested, friendly neighbor you can imagine. He's 82 years old, and he sells crop insurance in Anchor Illinois.

I sat with him on Anchor's one public bench. His customers were everywhere. That guy over there, working on a truck — he's a customer. (And, by the way, the customer's wife just had a gallbladder out, Dizz says.) The guy in that house over there is another customer, as is the guy down at the end. Dizz knows their mothers, their nicknames, their wives' digestion problems.

But Don has competition. Brent "Hondo" Honneger works a few miles down the road. Brent also wears polo shirts and is charming and knows everyone.

The morning I meet Brent he has organized a Q&A session for farmers on how to file a crop insurance claim. Brent invited a bunch of Don's clients to this event. Just in case, he says, they're not getting all their questions answered.

Then he makes sure to stand by the door and personally greet each farmer:

There's one customer who Brent has been trying to poach from Don he's been trying to poach from Don for decades. "But he's like, 'I go to church with Don. I see him every Sunday.'"

Brent says he is always gracious. But he'll occasionally ask Don's customers a few questions about whether Don is keeping up with the times. "Does he mail everything still?" Brent will ask. "He's still operating like we operated 20 years ago."

Government subsidies for crop insurance have set the stage for thousands of tiny popularity contests in small farming communities all across the country.

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.

For more: Why does the government subsidize crop insurance in the first place? We try to answer that question in our latest podcast.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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