Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based environmental group, has issued an urgent call to its members to contact three of the Democratic senators on a House-Senate conference committee and urge them to support the Senate-passed farm bill's level of funding for conservation programs.

The Senate bill, which has become the target of much criticism by mainline farm groups, contains significantly more funding for conservation programs than the House farm bill, which provides more spending on commodity programs. The House defeated a proposal that would have increased conservation funding by $19 billion over 10 years.

“A feisty alliance of progressive conservationists and family farmers helped forge Senate farm bill legislation the New York Times has called, “the most sweeping environmental legislation since the 1990 Clear Air Act,” Defenders of Wildlife said in an e-mail distributed to members and farm bill interest networks on March 13.

“Today in Washington, in congressional conference committee, these gains are under heavy attack. We have all fought hard together over the last year to improve farm policy. There have been many important crossroads, but none more important than this.”

The e-mail, signed by Scotty Johnson of the Defenders of Wildlife Rural Outreach Program, said that agribusiness political influence is pressuring key senators in an attempt to “rob conservation funding and direct it to commodities payments which do nothing but increase concentration and overproduction.”

The e-mail targets three Democrat senators — Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. All voted for the Senate farm bill and its Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment.

“This congressional body is now deciding the final outcome of the farm bill, weighing the House and Senate versions,” the e-mail said. “Their support is absolutely necessary to stand up against agribusiness and in support of conservation.”

The e-mail asked callers to urge the senators “fight hard” in conference in support of the Senate level of funding for conservation programs. “Ask them to stand against transferring conservation money to a commodity title which favors the richest farmers and agribusiness policy,” it said. “Tell them you support WHIP, FPP, GRP, the Conservation Security Program and other conservation measures in the Senate farm bill.”

The e-mail came amid reports that California's two senators, both of whom supported the Grassley-Dorgan amendment initially, are now asking Senate conference committee members to withdraw most of the amendment's provisions.

Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats, and other senators have written to Sens. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Richard Lugar, the ranking minority member, asking them to support the House bill and its higher payment limits.

“As you know, payment limits disproportionately affect family farmers of highly capital-intensive crops, particularly rice and cotton, which are the two most expensive program crops to grow. The $275,000 limit will hit rice and cotton growers first and would hit them hardest.”

Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who led the opposition to the Grassley-Dorgan Amendment, has sent a letter signed by 14 of her colleagues to Harkin and Lugar, also asking them to ignore the Senate bill payment limit provisions and implement those in the House bill.

“It will take more letters like those from the senators and letters from House members along with phone calls and e-mails from farmers to offset those from groups like the Defenders of Wildlife,” said one farm organization staff member.

“We feel we're making progress on getting Grassley-Dorgan removed from the farm bill, but it will take more input from farmers to achieve the results we're seeking.”


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.