By Senator Ben Cardin
In our nation, the agriculture industry provides more than 16 million jobs for Americans and is Maryland's largest industry. For those reasons, I am pleased that the U.S. Senate once again overcame partisan differences to pass a new Farm Bill. The Agricultural Reform, Food and Jobs Act provides more effective agricultural support programs for family farmers while reducing the budget deficit by more than $23 billion over the next five years. It is my hope that the U.S. House of Representatives will follow our example when it takes up consideration of the Farm Bill.
One of the most important aspects of U.S. agricultural policy is the resources and technical assistance that U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) provides our farmers to help protect the Chesapeake Bay. In the 2008 Farm Bill, I worked with the Maryland Congressional Delegation to create the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative Program (also known as the "Bay Program"), a program specially designed to provide additional resources for Chesapeake Bay region farmers.
The Bay Program has made a tremendous difference in helping farmers reduce nutrient runoff from their farms. I understand the tremendous pressure farmers in the region face, and I was proud to help provide them with the additional resources they need to deal with the special situation they face.
One of the most important changes in this year's Farm Bill was the replacement of the Bay Program and other similar specialized and regional agricultural conservation programs with the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Initially, I was skeptical but after working hard with my Bay state colleagues, and in cooperation with the Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-KS), I am pleased to report that we were able to make significant improvements to the bill.
Those improvements include a guarantee that the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCCP) maintains the Bay as a priority for conservation efforts at the USDA and that our farmers will continue to have the resources they need to be active stewards of our region's most precious natural resource. My colleagues and I were able to get an increase in the overall funding for the new regional conservation program, as well as improve the set-aside for "Critical Conservation Areas" like the Chesapeake Bay region, and solidify the Bay as a priority within the RCCP.
Farmers understand how valuable a healthy Chesapeake Bay is to our region and to our nation. It's why I fought so hard to preserve the Chesapeake as a priority conservation region and did not stop until we received assurances that the Chesapeake Bay Watershed would receive ample support under the 2012 Farm Bill's conservation programs.
While the Farm Bill may not be perfect, it does represent real reform. In passing the measure, the Senate showed what it truly means to legislate and find real compromise. I hope my colleagues in the House will follow our example.