By Jonathan Meade,

Sam Cantrell

and Stevanna Wynn

It was a thought in the middle of the night. The far-flung communities that hover under the banner of "Pennsylvania agriculture" reflect nonprofits and farm groups of all persuasions, the charitable organizations that address hunger issues, forestry management as well as experts in land stewardship, alternative energy, and watershed protection. Each has been attempting to influence members of Congress who are wrestling with the complexities of the 2007 Farm Bill. Why not bring these seemingly disparate entities together for a conversation that might just uncover enough common ground to plant the seeds of cooperation?

Many e-mails and phone calls later, 30 farm, food and preservation-oriented representatives of most of the organizations in the region met around a huge table at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Some found plenty of familiar faces across the table; many did not. Hesitancy was in the air, the product of uncertainty about setting aside weeks, if not months, of individual lobbying efforts in favor of a combined effort.

By the end of the meeting, progress had been made but no one just "jumped on board." There was easy agreement, however, that as ideas and opinions began to emerge, each group e-mail be answered as "reply to all." No one would feel left out, and the cooperative ethic would have a chance to flourish. The e-mails began to fly. One week later, after "you haven't included my most important concern," or "we can't ignore that," one by one the organizations began to sign on. Cooperation proved possible, enjoyable and productive, and the message to Congress became so much stronger. This combined message should resonate with anyone who cares about the environment that produces a plentiful, safe and healthy food supply:

Congress must dedicate more funding to boost land, water and wildlife stewardship; reward smart land management and rural development; support public nutrition and food security; clean up the Chesapeake Bay; and promote energy development and other economic opportunities on farm and forest lands.

Forests are essential to the health of our environment. The next Farm Bill should help conserve family and other privately owned forests that are increasingly threatened by sprawl by providing federal assistance for acquisition and sustainable management of forests and open spaces.

Increased investments in nutrition programs under the Farm Bill should better support the nation's private charitable network of food banks and strengthen the food-stamp program with incentives to encourage the purchase and delivery of fruits and vegetables to improve health and fight obesity.

Bolstering the Commodity Supplemental Food Program is essential in Pennsylvania, which ranks third nationally by percentage of population age 65 or older. The CSFP provides nutritionally balanced food packages each month to those at nutritional risk.

Food and farm policies should support farm-based development of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, and particularly the diversification of biofuel feedstocks that would move beyond non-corn-based ethanol production.

Farmers want to help clean up local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay, but they need funding and technical assistance. Supporting on-farm conservation practices is one of the best ways to clean our waters and preserve our natural heritage while ensuring the farmer's ability to earn a living.

Thousands of acres of farmland and open space are lost annually to sprawl. Farmers and forest landowners who want to keep their land and take steps to address this challenge should be rewarded. Right now, three of four applicants are rejected annually under current Farm Bill programs that offer to share the cost of cleaner water, open-space preservation, and wildlife-habitat protection.

The U.S. Farm Bill affects every facet of American life. The reauthorization process is far from over. This year Congress has a rare opportunity to modernize programs, to effectively address our most pressing hunger, energy and environmental needs.

Jonathan Meade is executive director of the Highlands Coalition in Bethlehem. Sam Cantrell is executive director of Maysie's Farm Conservation Center in Glenmoore. Stevanna Wynn is executive director of the SHARE Food Program Inc. in Philadelphia.