During the long drives between his Penn State office and the dairy farms of Lancaster County, Les Lanyon often took a break at a truck stop along the Susquehanna River.

There, in the middle of Pennsylvania, he could help save vanishing rainforests by purchasing snacks where proceeds went to special programs.  If people could help ecosystems a continent away, Lanyon began to wonder, why couldn't they help farmers in their own backyards who were trying toprotect close-to-home rivers and streams?

"Here, truck drivers could do something to save the rainforest, and they were a stone's throw from the Susquehanna but couldn't do anything to help the local farmers save the Chesapeake Bay," said Lanyon, a Penn State professor of soil fertility.

That is about to change.

Milk in cartons bearing a new "Environmental Quality Initiative" seal will go on sale in parts of Pennsylvania in June as a test market for the concept. Five cents per half gallon of the purchase price will be used to reward farmers who meet certain environmental standards and to help others come up to those standards.

"What we want to do here is offer consumers the opportunity to play a role in environmental protection through their grocery purchases," said Lori Sandman of the Dairy Network Partnership - a collaborative effort of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Rodale Institute, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Penn State University and the EPA.

The seal, which features a colorful drawing of a barn and a tree, will initially be featured on a new line of milk - called "Chesapeake Milk" - but may eventually be featured on other brands, and other dairy products, if the initial test market is successful.

Chesapeake Milk will first go on sale in southeastern Pennsylvania, Sandman said, but in coming months, sales will expand into other parts of the state, as well as Maryland, Delaware and northern Virginia.

At a time when calls are growing for increased government regulation - especially for large animal operations - the dairy network's program takes an entirely different tack in dealing with agricultural pollution: helping, and rewarding, small farmers who are doing a good job.

"There is a disconnect between the marketplace and the environment," said Lamonte Garber, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's representative with the dairy network. "A dairy farmer gets paid the same price regardless of how he manages the natural resources on his farm. You can have an excellent manager who does everything possible to protect his local environment, and you can have a farmer who has a lot of problems leading to excessive runoff. Both of those farmers get the same price for their milk."

The key element of the program is a "farmstead evaluation" of participating farms using a scorecard developed by Penn State's Cooperative Extension which examines how well waterways are protected: whether cows are in streams, the size of vegetative buffers along streams, how pesticides are used.

In all, 28 categories are reviewed using a four-point scale, with four being the maximum score. A farm that scores 80 or more is eligible to receive an extra 50 cents for every 100 pounds of milk produced, or about 2.5 cents a half gallon.

Farms will be evaluated annually which, Garber said, will help build an ongoing relationship with farmers. The dairy partnership's on-farm coordinator will be able to see what practices work, which don't, figure out new solutions and pass on success stories to other farmers. The bottom line, Garber said, is whether the farmer is successful at protecting the water - not how they do it.

"What we want to achieve is environmental performance," Garber said. "We don't care, really, how a farmer does it. If he protects groundwater and he cleans up the stream, that's all we're concerned about. We're going to allow room for innovation, and we're going to try to be as objective as possible in our evaluation of that farmer."

Farms close to the 80-point mark are eligible to receive up to 80 percent cost-share grants from the dairy network for improvements. These could include such things as barnyard runoff controls, streambank fencing or special stream crossings. When they hit the mark, they will also become eligible for the bonus payment.

Farmers qualifying for the premium will get the extra money on the "milk check" they receive from processors. Typically, that check is based on the volume of milk produced, but also includes others bonuses, such as meeting specific high-quality milk standards. 

Garber said the program should help many Amish and Mennonite farmers in Pennsylvania who are often reluctant to accept government money, but can participate in a non-government incentive program.  "All farmers, regardless of religious backgrounds, watch their milk check pretty closely," Garber said.

The program is mainly aimed at small dairy farmers who are often less able to fund environmental improvements. Recent deregulation of milk prices is likely to keep farmer prices low and further contribute to dairy producers going out of business.

"We're trying to avoid environmental protection being the straw that forcesany producer out of business by saying that they can actually add value to their product rather than incur a penalty or an extra cost to protect the environment," Lanyon said.

The dairy network's program grew out of frustration with existing government programs aimed at controlling runoff. Those programs often share the costs with farmers undertaking actions aimed at reducing runoff. But money is prioritized toward farms with the biggest problems.

"Under that kind of a program, the farmers who have the biggest problem get the money," Lanyon said, "and those farmers who are doing a good job do not qualify for any assistance and they are not recognized for the extra effort they've invested. This program is based on excellence in performance. It links consumers to farmers who are doing that good job."

The program's startup is being supported through a Section 319 grant - money aimed at controlling runoff pollution - from the EPA which is passed through the state Department of Environmental Protection. The grant helped to pay for initial staffing, farm survey work, milk carton design and the initial farm evaluations. Of 23 farms reviewed in the pilot program, 20 signed up. The dairy network expects that number to mushroom as soon as the milk - and the money - starts flowing.

During the yearlong test market, farms can receive the premium on up to 1.5 million pounds of milk a year - roughly the production of a dairy herd of 60 to 75 cows, which is about average in the state. That means the premium could be worth about $7,500 a year to a farmer.

Total milk sales in the test market is not tied to production by participating farmers. The dairy partnership plans to sell as much as people will buy. "The more milk we sell, the more farmers we can include," Sandman said. Once revenue exceeds the amount needed to pay premiums, it will go into the cost-share account.

Chesapeake Milk is no different than any other milk. Unlike an organic product, where a clear "paper trail" exists between the producer and the store shelf, the milk from participating farms is mixed with those from other farms when it reaches the processors.

The milk will be processed by Sunnydale Farms initially but could be expanded to other processors in the future. Besides milk, the seal will appear on some Natural Dairy Products Corp.'s Natural by Nature organic dairy products.

Such "green marketing" techniques are a growing area of interest as a way to encourage environmental stewardship and protect resources. The Clean Water Action Plan unveiled by President Clinton earlier this year directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to explore such marketing possibilities across the nation to boost environmental performance.

Despite the benefits, there are also risks involved in the program. Polls consistently show that consumers say they are willing to pay for products that protect the environment, but what they say and what they do are often different.

"There is the risk of milk not moving off the shelf," Lanyon said. "This is mostly about consumers buying into new ways to choose how food is produced, it's not focused on farmers."

Milk production is Pennsylvania's leading agricultural sector, with about 10,000 dairy farms dotting the landscape.