According to Leahy, D-Vt., the bill simply puts up a fire wall around four conservation programs, preventing funding intended for those programs to be siphoned off to pay for technical assistance for the Conservation Reserve Program.

The conservation programs that would be protected by the bill include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Farmland and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP), the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), and the Grasslands Reserve Program.

The Farm Conservation Funding Protection Act of 2003, S.1766, is co-sponsored by Senators Leahy, Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Susan Collins, R-Maine, Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

At a Tuesday press conference held by Leahy’s Washington office, staff members communicated Leahy’s “pointed frustration” at USDA’s decision to earlier this year to divert $158.7 million from several working lands conservation programs to pay for the Conservation Reserve Program.

“USDA has diverted $107.9 million in EQIP funds to the CRP, leaving less money for farmers to combat serious problems like agricultural runoff. These actions have also cost the Farmland and Ranchland Protection Program, chartered as a pilot program in Vermont a decade ago, $27.6 million this year,” Leahy says.

“When drafting the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress intended the USDA to pay for the CRP using money from the Commodity Credit Corp., an agricultural subsidy program.”

While the move by USDA certainly affects farmers in all state, bill sponsors says it disproportionately affects New England and northwestern farmers, because these working lands programs are “the only ones that really work in the states in these regions.”

Leahy says that although New England farmers do not receive much benefit from the majority of farm bill programs, they would have benefited greatly from the four working lands programs included in his bill.

“Although I was pleased that USDA directed additional funds to Vermont earlier this fall,” he said, “the total conservation funding clearly falls short of the target we set in the farm bill.

“USDA’s decision to divert this important conservation funding to the programs that primarily benefit the Midwest is hurting our farmers and our communities. Full funding for conservation programs is essential to give farmers the tools and incentives they need to help meet our major environmental challenges throughout the nation. Our bill restores the commitment made in last year’s farm bill.”

The decision by USDA to divert funds from conservation programs could not have come at a worse time, says Scott Faber, water resource specialist with Environmental Defense, a private environmental advocacy group.

“USDA is taking money away from farmers who want to help their environment,” Faber told reporters participating in the conference. “Our country is facing acute environmental problems. There is increasing pressure from community groups, state health officials, and others to get farmers to the point where they have the most state of the art and effective environmental controls available, but many are not able economically to do it themselves.”

“The farm bill was very clear about how Congress expected USDA to pay for technical assistance, but instead they are balancing the books on the backs of these four conservation programs,” Leahy’s office says. “In Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine where dairy prices are very low and dairy farms are going under every day, the absence of these programs is a very serious financial blow to farmers.”

“Building this firewall does not mean we are preventing the funding of the Conservation Reserve Program. It just means we are trying to force USDA to follow the original intent of the farm bill,” says Suzanna Fleek with Sen. Leahy’s office. “We’re starting with six supporters and hopefully that number will go up quickly.

“We’re especially hoping to get considerable support for those folks in states like Mississippi that pushed for higher funding levels for EQIP and WHIP.”

Leahy is a senior member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and chaired the committee in the 1980s and early 1990s.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com