The U.S. Senate passed the 2012 Farm Bill, meaning the measure is a big step closer to enactment. The farm bill, renewed every five years, is the largest source of funding for conservation on America’s working farmland, ranchland and private forestland. In addition to funding federal conservation and nutrition programs, the bill also authorizes risk management and other programs that influence the decisions of land managers across the country.

"The farm bill is the United States' primary means for engaging farmers, ranchers and foresters in stewardship of America's natural resources," says Sara Hopper, agricultural policy director of Environmental Defense Fund. "The continuing economic prosperity of agriculture is critical to the nation. But it is also true that agriculture has a significant environmental footprint. It affects – and is affected by – soil health, reliable supplies of clean water and healthy ecosystems."

As part of an effort to reduce the federal deficit, the Senate voted to cut more than $23 billion from the farm bill budget over the next 10 years, including $6.4 billion from conservation programs. While these cuts will hurt conservation efforts on the ground, senators made an effort to mitigate the impact of the loss in conservation funding by including policies that will make conservation programs more effective. Specifically, the Senate bill consolidates some conservation programs and creates a stronger emphasis on leveraging additional resources from local and state governments and other partners who can assist producers in voluntary, cooperative efforts to address local, state and regional conservation priorities. Senators also voted yesterday to apply to taxpayer-funded crop insurance premium subsidies the requirements that farmers of some environmentally sensitive lands currently have to meet in order to receive other farm subsidies.

"With increasing pressures to feed a growing global population, America's natural resources are under more demand and stress than ever before," says Hopper. "Demand for conservation assistance for farmers already outstrips available conservation dollars. Congress must maintain and strengthen its commitment to conservation in this farm bill and one way to do that is through innovate partnership programs that bring conservation dollars to local communities."