A new federal program aimed at protecting farmland from development is sending $3.2 million to the Bay states - nearly 20 percent of the money available nationwide - to save farms from urban sprawl, which also threatens the Bay.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's new Farmland Protection Program is providing $14.5 million to purchase development rights from farmers who want to keep their land in production but are threatened by encroaching development.

"Much of America's farmland is near major cities," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, "and as our cities sprawl into neighboring rural areas, our farms are in danger of becoming subdivisions or shopping malls. We can't sit back and take our farms - and the food they supply for our families - for granted."

The program was established in the 1996 Farm Bill, which authorized spending $35 million over six years to protect farmland. Congress set of goal of protecting 170,000 to 340,000 acres of farmland nationwide. This year's grants are expected to leverage about $40 million in state and local funds to purchase easements, bringing the total available to about $55 million. Glickman said that would protect about 50,000 acres and 200 farms nationwide.

Pennsylvania's preservation program will get $1 million, and six counties will get $100,000 each: Adams, Bucks, Chester, Lancaster, Lebanon and York. All but Bucks and a portion of Chester counties are in the Bay watershed. Maryland's program will also get $1 million, with five county programs getting $100,000 each: Anne Arundel, Carroll, Calvert, Frederick and Montgomery. In Virginia, the city of Virginia Beach will get $100,000.

Delaware is getting $1 million for farmland preservation. About a third of that state is in the Bay watershed.

After the adoption of the 1996 Farm Bill, the USDA sought proposals from states and local governments to help acquire conservation easements or other interests in land with prime, unique or productive soil to limit nonagricultural uses of that land.

Under the program, USDA enters into agreements with states and local governments to support efforts to protect farmland through the purchase of easements. The USDA provides up to 50 percent of the cost of buying these easements. Under an easement, a landowner voluntarily conveys the right to develop a parcel of farmland, while retaining the right to use the property for agricultural purposes.

Qualifying farmland must have a conservation plan; be large enough to sustain agricultural production; be accessible to markets for what the land produces and have adequate infrastructure and agricultural support services; and have surrounding parcels of land that can support long-term agricultural production.

More than 20 states submitted proposals for easements totaling $329 million in value. Besides the Bay states, proposals were selected from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.