By Judy Jengo

and Amy Hansen

There is a growing sense that when Congress passes the farm bill this year, farmers and environmental programs in states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey could benefit. Most people think the farm bill is important only to the Midwestern states. But we all pay for its programs (likely $400 billion over the next six years) and should share in the funding.

The environmental benefits of the bill – delivered through an alphabet soup of conservation programs operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – are extremely important, but not widely known. The USDA spends about $4 billion a year to improve water quality, protect farmland and grassland from sprawling development, restore wetlands, and help wildlife.

Unlike commodity programs, which make up a large portion of the farm bill, conservation programs are available to all farmers, not just those who grow corn, cotton, rice, and a few other crops that are heavily subsidized. But current conservation funding is inadequate to meet the strong demand for these programs.

In 2004, more than three of every four New Jersey and Pennsylvania farmers who applied for conservation assistance were rejected because the USDA didn't have enough funding. Meanwhile, billions in commodity subsidies went to a fraction of America's farmers. Just 22 of more than 400 congressional districts collected more than half of all government dollars, and less than 1 percent of all farmers collected 62 percent of those subsidies.

A notably bipartisan group of congressmen has sent signals that this year they want to create a farm bill that provides more conservation and renewable-energy benefits. In March, U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.) joined U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D., Wis.) and 17 New Jersey and Pennsylvania congressmen and 82 other cosponsors from around the country to introduce the Healthy Farms, Foods and Fuels Act of 2007. An identical bill was introduced in the Senate by New Jersey Democrats Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg. As residents of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, we are grateful for our states' leadership on this important issue.

The act would provide $300 million for farmland and open-space preservation and proposes protecting 10 million acres of grassland and five million acres of wetlands. If this effort succeeds, imagine how many more acres of farmland, wetlands and forest we can permanently protect in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The act targets new money to help manage natural resources on private forest lands and address the water-quality problems of the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, caused partially by pollutants in agricultural runoff. Pennsylvania and New Jersey stand to benefit greatly from expanded funding of programs such as these, which are also popular with farmers.

Diabetes and obesity are multibillion dollar public-health problems. This year, Congress may also reinvigorate efforts to connect farm policy with the promotion of healthy diet choices. The act would provide money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for school lunch programs and fund coupon programs to encourage low-income and elderly consumers to shop at farmers' markets, as well as a host of initiatives to help build markets for the small-scale farming operations that can thrive in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. More farmers could start producing organic foods with a small government incentive to help with temporarily higher net costs.

Whether there is more money for New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the bill depends on whether our representatives in Congress continue to champion proposals such as the Healthy Farms Act, and that depends upon what our representatives in Washington hear from us.

Farm policy affects more than just Kansas cornfields. In today's interconnected world, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food that nourishes us is all affected by what Congress will do this year. Our region stands to gain tremendously.

Judy Jengo is executive director of the GreenSpace Alliance, a nonprofit coalition that works to preserve and enhance natural, agricultural and recreational open spaces in Southeast Pennsylvania.

Amy Hansen is a policy analyst at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, a statewide nonprofit organization that protects strategic lands; promotes strong land-use policies; and forges partnerships to achieve conservation goals.