For more than 60 years, farmers stopped by their local farm services agency each spring and signed their names to join the farm program. It felt like insurance: If the market prices for certain crops fell below a floor, the government would pay the difference. But security came at a price. The government told producers what and how much to plant. And it paid by the acre, so larger farms got a bigger share of the pot. Now, 20 percent of producers reap 80 percent of the payments.


By the late 1970s, it was no secret that farmers cultivated more land to get bigger payments. The land was releasing silt, chemicals and animal wastes into watersheds. Farmers were plowing over wetlands, and busting so much sod that every 20 years saw a mini-dust bowl. Teaming up with sustainable agriculture advocates, environmentalists successfully lobbied for a slew of conservation programs in the 1985 farm bill. Most were voluntary, but the two most far-reaching programs were linked to subsidy payments: No water and soil conservation, no subsidy check.


The 1996 farm bill, signed into law last month, picked up where its predecessor left off, offering farmers the best-funded package of conservation incentives in history.


Why, then, is nobody clapping?


Because while the new law nudges farmers to protect the land, the federal government will no longer cut them off if they don't. Now that environmental protection is voluntary, some worry that farmers will abandon conservation for production. And for seven more years, farmers will receive hefty if diminishing checks based only on production for the last five years. They can plant as much as they want. Payments will continue to benefit bigger farms, which means smaller operations may plant fence row to fence row to keep up.


Some hopeful farmers say the receding role of government will boost their environmental practice. Grasslands could benefit from the newly won flexibility in what farmers can plant. In the arid West, alternating row crops with soil-building forage crops or cattle ranching makes it harder for weeds, diseases and pests to adapt, letting farmers use fewer pesticides. But until now, farmers lost their subsidies on acres where they raised hay or grazed. That was partly due to the pressure of the livestock lobby, which argued that the government was paying farmers a second salary.


Farmer Wayne Baker in Portales, N.M., explains that farmers are "natural conservationists," who will do anything to save their land.


"The government doesn't know what to do. The Soil Conservation Service are police agents, not a help," says Baker. "The farmer'll spend all his money to preserve the farm. He needs to be allowed to make money."


Organic farmer John Tester in north-central Montana remains unconvinced. As he sees it, farmers always have something they want to buy - a new set of drills, a tractor, a combine. They'll spend the big government checks on equipment rather than conservation. And his neighbors who plant monocultures of wheat won't hay or graze when prices are soaring. Then, prices will drop.


"When commodity prices fall," says Tester, "farmers will maximize production. How they do that is by breaking up marginal land and trying to raise crops on that, or increasing fertilizer inputs."


For the past year, the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, a coalition of over 500 farmer, rural-development and environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Audubon Society, pushed to strengthen Conservation Compliance and Swampbuster, the two environmental programs that were linked to government subsidies. They contended that if taxpayers give farmers up to $4.8 billion over the next seven years, they have a right to demand that producers don't drain wetlands or erode soil.


Under pressure from the Campaign, the Clinton administration fought reluctant Republicans for environmental provisions. Eventually, they gained $2.5 billion for voluntary conservation programs over seven years, although the act significantly weakens Conservation Compliance and Swampbuster. "We knew we were going to lose on commodity programs, so we made conservation our top priority and fought vigorously for it," says Jim Peterson, deputy press secretary for the Department of Agriculture. "We pulled a rabbit out of a hat." They won a package of conservation programs and incentives that includes:


* A new Fund for Rural America allocates $300 million over three years for rural development and research. This money could house migrant farmworkers along the picking-circuit stretching from Washington to New Mexico, or support cooperatives that free family farms and ranches from the big processing industries.


* The Farms for the Future Program will provide matching funds to regional programs that help farmers resist encroaching suburban development. However, only $35 million was allocated per year, a sum Kathleen Kelley of Meeker, Colo., vice president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union considers "nothing. I've got a ranch next to me going for $3.5 million."


* The Community Food Security Program will help bring produce from family farmers directly to poor urban areas by giving $1 million annually to programs such as the farmers' markets in Portland, Ore., where small farmers meet urban consumers face to face.


* The Environmental Quality Incentives Program combines the government's many conservation cost-share programs in a "whole-farm approach." A farmer will be able to sit down with soil conservation experts, assess the biggest environmental risks on the farm, draw up a plan to solve them, and get some money for implementation.


* Despite threats to cut it severely, the act reauthorizes the Conservation Reserve Program, a favorite of hunters, farmers and environmentalists alike. The program is a straight trade: On 3.5 million acres that are vulnerable to wind or water erosion, farmers agree to plant grasses or trees. In return, the government pays the farmer a per-acre fee plus half of the restoration costs. According to Kelley, CRP has halted a second major dust bowl. In Colorado, where one-sixth - almost two million acres - of the tilled land is in CRP, whole counties depend on CRP payments for income, and elk and deer herds rely on the idled land for winter forage. In the Palouse region of eastern Washington, Idaho and western Montana, CRP has slowed erosion, restored populations of pheasants, waterfowl, and prairie chickens, and reduced air pollution to downwind cities like Spokane, Wash.


The campaign celebrates these victories, but many agree with California grape grower Victor Hanson, who says that conservation programs are sugar coating on a rotting carcass. Government payments - whether yesterday's subsidies or today's flat handouts - support the fabulously wealthy and lax conservation measures, not the small organic farms that have folded in his valley.


"It is cynical to add noble pieces of legislation to something amoral," says Hanson. "(Conservation programs) were put there by Clinton to mute criticism from Democratic supporters. They are buying liberal support through adornments."


Farmers like Hanson and Tester say true reform would be to stop payments altogether and allocate money only for environmental programs. "We still have a program that pays the rich," says Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb. "If no one has the courage to represent the average farm or average citizen, we ought to get rid of the damn government farm programs."


Today, Tester is in a quandary. Should he go down to the farm services agency and register for his government check, even though he doesn't believe in subsidies?


"I've got two things on my mind. First, the greed. The money is sitting there. All you have to do is sign your name and the money's yours. That's not quite right. But on the other hand, all my neighbors are taking it. What the hell am I trying to prove?"


* Heather Abel,


HCN researcher/reporter