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Senate must fund conservation needs, advocates say

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, went to a lot of trouble to find additional funding for conservation programs, such as his own Conservation Stewardship Program, in the 2007 farm bill he was scheduled to present to the Senate Agriculture Committee today.

But a group of 41 agriculture, conservation and environmental organizations including American Farmland Trust says Harkin’s plans for funding the conservation title of the new law are not adequate.

The group is calling on the Senate to provide at least $5 billion above current baseline funding in the 2007 farm bill for conservation programs, and to protect the $3 billion in funds identified by the Senate Finance Committee in its agricultural tax package for use in conservation programs.

“Nowhere is the need for adequate conservation funding truer than in the Mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay region,” Jim Baird, AFT’s Mid-Atlantic States director, said. “Improved agricultural stewardship practices are key to protecting and restoring the health of ground and surface waters, our estuaries and bays.”

While the groups welcome the funding identified by the Senate Finance Committee, two-thirds of that money will be needed to re-establish a baseline for the Wetlands and Grasslands Reserve programs.

“Nationally, two out of three farmers who apply to participate in conservation programs are turned down due to a lack of funding,” says Baird. “If the Senate will step up to the plate and provide $5 billion in additional funding, the USDA will be able to begin addressing the backlog of applicants to agricultural conservation projects.”

The groups note that polls show the public strongly supports programs that enable farmers to provide clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, soil quality and other environmental benefits.

“Under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, the region’s states have committed to significant clean up of the Bay,” says Baird. “A main target date is looming in 2010 — when we are to correct the nutrient and sediment related problems sufficiently to remove the bay and its tidal tributaries from the list of impaired waters under the Clean Water Act.”

While significant progress has been made toward this goal, most agree more must be done. “The agriculture community has and will continue to contribute significantly to restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” says Baird. “But federal conservation programs are critical to helping farmers improve their stewardship practices and enabling the region to meet its public environmental goals.”

For more information on the issue, go to the American Farmland Trust Web site at American Farmland Trust is a national nonprofit organization working with communities and individuals to protect the best land, plan for agriculture and keep the land healthy.

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