Conservation may be smart and hip in these environmentally conscious times, but it's not cheap.

And for area farmers, who endured one of the century's worst droughts this summer, cheap is a required element. Some say they just can't afford to take all the steps necessary to protect streams running through their property.

"If you can't pay for it, you can't do it," said Jim Welling, a third-generation Howard County farmer.

Maryland, however, decided to give Welling a hand by establishing a conservation program that pays farmers to plant trees and grasses and put up fences alongside streams to keep out livestock. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program also pays farmers annual rents on the acreage set aside for protection, for up to 15 years.

Welling signed up. But many others have passed on the opportunity to apply for funding.

It's not for a lack of money. Using a combination of state, federal and private aid, more than $200 million has been available nationally since 1997. But so far, Maryland organizers have paid out funds to protect just 13,000 acres, far short of the initiative's goal of 100,000 acres by 2002.

Many say the number of state, federal and nongovernmental agencies involved makes managing the program difficult, and some farmers say their counterparts won't participate because they're leery of governmental regulation of any kind. One group says a big reason the money hasn't been grabbed is that it has not been advertised well. Until this year, there wasn't any money set aside for marketing the program.

Now, with the help of a national grant, program officials are testing out their marketing strategies on farmers in Howard, Kent and Washington counties. The push is particularly important in Howard County, where so far only 17 farmers have enrolled 390 acres in he program.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 1997 Agricultural Census, the county has about 40,000 acres of farmland in 318 farms. Any cropland or marginal pastureland next to a stream, or erodible land within 1,000 feet of a stream, is eligible for conservation funds.

This month, Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, a Maryland nonprofit group that promotes farming, sent out mailings about the initiative to several hundred Howard County landowners and farmers.

"We're not even close to utilizing all the money that's available," said Bruce Mertz, executive director of Future Harvest. "If that was actually accomplished, we would have a lot of buffers" or environmental sanctuaries along streams. The ultimate goal, he said, is greater than protecting small streams. "To protect the [Chesapeake] Bay is the main thing."

On Welling's farm in northwestern Howard County, protecting the bay meant planting 5,500 trees, fencing 13 acres of stream and building two stream crossings and new water sources for his cattle. The bill, he said, came to just under $40,000. He didn't pay for any of it.

"In a drought year, with crops bad and income down, there's no money in my checking account to pay for fences and trees and stuff like this when I don't have to have them," he said. On the other hand, he said he realized "if we don't take care of what the good Lord's given us, we'll be out of business."

So conservation became a good deal for him and his wife, Ruthie, who farm about 220 acres. It's also a responsibility, because they signed a contract with program officials to maintain the buffers for 15 years, keeping noxious weeds out of the area and replacing trees that die.

"It's going to be a little time-consuming, but if it does everything they hope it'll do, at least the water leaving my property will be clean," Welling said.

Since Maryland started its program in late 1997, only a handful of states have followed suit. Virginia and Pennsylvania are close to launching their own programs, according to Ed Temple, regional biologist with Ducks Unlimited, a partner in the initiative.

Natural Resources Conservation Service offices--part of the federal Agriculture Department--do what they can to promote the program in Maryland.

Cheryl Simmons, district conservationist with the Howard County office of the conservation service, said farmers and landowners might want to fence off their streams to protect them, or they might be interested in building a new trough for their cattle, but they wouldn't necessarily understand that the program could do it for them in the name of conservation buffers.

"This is just the biggest pot of money right now, and we'd sure hate to not utilize it," Simmons said.

For one of Howard County's most well-known farmers, 80-year-old former state senator James Clark Jr., the conservation initiative made sense.

Before the program started, he built a buffer along seven acres of stream on his 548-acre Ellicott City farm, and the money came mostly out of his pocket. Last spring, after he learned of the new funding source, he put nine acres in the program and got a fence, new trees and a trough out of the deal. He signed on for a 15-year contract. "By that time, the trees will be so big that they will be doing the job nicely," Clark said.

And he plans to keep going. "Next year, we're going to do about 11 acres, and the following year, we're going to do some more."

Water quality on his farm is particularly important, he said, because it sits across the street from Centennial Park and its 40-acre lake.

"I certainly encourage anybody that I have a chance to influence to do it," he said. "It's a real grass-roots program to save the bay is what it is."