"Chesapeake Milk" - a new product that returns part of its proceeds to dairy farmers who follow rigid environmental standards - hit grocery store shelves in December.

Initially, the milk is being sold exclusively in Fresh Fields stores, but it may expand to other chains after a test market period, according to the Dairy Network Partnership, which introduced the product.

The milk carton bears a special Environmental Quality Initiative mark, which indicates that 5 cents of the price of each half gallon will go into a special Environmental Quality Stewardship Fund. The fund will be used to provide incentives to farmers who strive to improve their environmental management.

The Dairy Network Partnership includes the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the Pennsylvania State University, Rodale Institute and the EPA.

The initiative is aimed at linking consumers and farmers who share a commitment to environmental protection, and to encourage the use of management practices that reduce environmental impacts from dairy farms.

During the first year of the initiative, the program will pay an "environmental premium" to dairy farmers who meet a high standard of environmental protection. It will also offer a cost-share program to other farmers to improve their environmental management. Performance is measured by a standardized, on-farm environmental farmstead evaluation that is used for each participating farm.

While a variety of practices can help limit nutrient-laden runoff from farms, many are costly to install, and the amount of cost-share money from government agencies is limited.

"Consumers must be involved in partnerships with producers to adequately address the cost of production while protecting shared resources, defending the needs of other species and caring for future generations," said Les Lanyon, the Penn State University participant for the partnership.