The Star Tribune would have you believe that farmers are pretty much the only people who benefit from the farm bill ("Farm bill bulges in wrong places," July 5). But the truth is that it's one of our most important federal conservation programs.

Most of the land in Minnesota and throughout the lower 48 states is in private hands, and a lot of it is used to grow crops and raise livestock. How these working lands are managed affects water quality in our lakes and streams; soil conservation; wildlife habitat, and hunting, fishing and other recreation opportunities for all of us.

The U.S. Senate recently passed the 2012 farm bill by a vote of 64-35. And while the Star Tribune and others would like to see changes, the legislation represents the most significant reform of farm policy in decades.

The Star Tribune rightly pointed out that conservation programs would be cut by more than $6 billion (part of a total of $23 billion in savings) if the Senate version were approved. But things could be worse.

Since the 2008 farm bill was enacted, conservation programs have been cut significantly through the annual appropriations process. Together with the additional cuts in the Senate version, conservation programs are already contributing more than their fair share to deficit reduction.

Further cuts would jeopardize successful programs, including the Wetland and Grassland Reserve programs, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and other programs that help protect our lands and waters.

In many parts of the country, there are long waiting lists of landowners who would participate in these conservation programs if sufficient resources were available. And because the demand for farm products is placing ever-greater pressure on our soil and water resources, programs that help landowners undertake conservation practices on working lands are needed now more than ever.

Minnesota is a leading agricultural producer, growing everything from corn and soybeans to wild rice and sugar beets. To protect our lands and waters, we need the support of farmers who acknowledge that conservation programs and environmental stewardship are key components of the farm bill.

In to a recent, bipartisan poll, 86 percent of farmers said that conservation funding should be maintained or increased. And conservation programs rank as the second-highest priority for inclusion in the farm bill.

The farm bill comes up just once every five years; it can be contentious legislation. But the Senate Agriculture Committee worked in a bipartisan manner to create a bill that provides a workable solution while also contributing to deficit reduction.

Minnesota's Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a member of the agriculture committee, played an important role in this achievement. She and Sen. Al Franken supported the bill, and both should be commended for their work.

The Star Tribune's editorial failed to mention that the Senate version of the farm bill has two significant additions that would help protect native grasslands as well as highly erodible land and wetlands. A new "Sodsaver" provision would eliminate federal support for new cropland created by breaking ground on grasslands with no history of production. Landowners could choose to plow up prairie, but their profitability would be driven by the free market, not by agricultural subsidy and disaster payments.

Farmers would also become ineligible for taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance if they were to convert highly erodible land or wetlands. Conservation compliance was in the farm bill for a decade until 1996.

Minnesotans who love the outdoors should urge their members of the U.S. House not only to hold the line on funding for conservation programs as they develop their version of the farm bill but also to add "Sodsaver" and to restore conservation compliance.

Becky Humphries is director of the Great Lakes/Atlantic regional office of Ducks Unlimited. Peggy Ladner is director of the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Dave Nomsen is vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever. Doug Peterson is president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.