An article in the Outlook section of Aug. 31 reported that a dairy farm near Gettysburg "is converting 2.7 million tons of manure from its 700 Holstein cows into $30,000 worth of energy annually." The correct figure is 2.7 million pounds of manure.

A GROWING NUMBER of American farmers think that Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland's bureaucracy is full of it. They're mad because the bureaucracy won't practice what is preached and help farms, which are also full of "it, turn a lot of "it" into cost-effective energy.

The "it" is manure. By a relatively simple process, which involves no serious environmental hazards such as meltdowns, manure can be converted to a burnable gas. If 60 per cent of a agriculture's waste could be so utilized, the energy benefit would be the equivalent of 155 million barrels of oil a year -- enough to supply all the electrical needs of 15 million of America's 78 million homes.

On selected occasions, Dick Waybright, co-owner of the Mason-Dixon dairy farm southeast of Gettysburg, raises up a sign that shows a Holstein cow with a bolt of energy coming from the vicinity of its tail.

This is Waybright's way of advertising cow power. His farm, which straddles the historic boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, is converting 2.7 million tons of manure from its 700 Holstein cows into $30,000 worth of energy annually. The system works, and it is cost-effective. $3

If Waybright could get help he needs to expand his operation, he could produce all the electricity he needs, use waste heat to run an alcohol still to produce fuel for his tractors, and export surplus current to the local utility, which happens to be Metropolitan Edison of Three Mile Island fame.

In his search for financial help, Waybright went to the federal government, which says it is committed to moving the nation toward energy independence. The Department of Energy, after many months, said no. The Agriculture Department said no. This is the same department which has been committed by its chief -- Bergland -- to bringing its "full range of authorities and resources . . . to help America become energy independent."

Recite those words to Waybright, and he will say wearily: "I can't understand why the government can recognize the process and yet not move on it."

Waybright is only one farmer who is learning the bitter lesson that the federal government isn't yet prepared to put its money where its press releases and speeches are and help farmers tap their enormous energy potential. In Illinois, one of the nation's biggest farm states, John W. Lehman, alternate fuels coordinator for the Illinois Agriculture Department, says Farmers Home Administration (FmHA, the main aid agency within (USDA) "has not guaranteed a single dollar's worth of loans for alternate energy projects in this state."

Many forms of alternate energy involve high technology (squeezing gas or oil out of a lump of coal) or a touch of romance (windmills churning on the horizon). But there is nothing romantic or very technological about cow power. It is actually an age-old process that has been widely used on a small scale in China and India and other countries that don't have huge, modern energy grids like the United States.

While not technologically imposing, the Mason-Dixon system is not exactly a Rube Goldberg contraption held together with baling wire and desperate hope. It is simple, but not simple-minded. Manure from about 700 cows is flushed to a pit where the solids are separated out and sent to a basin tightly covered by a big black plastic cover that keeps oxygen out. In the oxygen-free atmosphere under the bag, bacteria and other microbes devour the solids and then die, their decay producing a gas that expands the bag like a giant balloon. The gas is 60 percent methane and 40 percent carbon dioxide.

The gas is used as a fuel to run a generator which produces electricity. Converting the gas' BTUs into kilowatts is not as efficient as burning the gas directly, but Waybright wants to utilize the generator's considerable waste heat to make alcohol from corn grown at the farm. There is a big controversy about whether alcohol production is cost-effective when its operation requires a fuel such as petroleum. But when waste heat is used, there is a clear net gain.

The problem so far with alternate energy, which America is supposed to exploit so it can become less dependent on imported petroleum, is that what sounds wonderful on paper ("harnessing the endless power of the sun," etc.), in reality can be horrendously expensive and/or susceptible to frequent breakdowns.

When Waybright decided to try to make Mason-Dixon energy-independent, he cast a cold eye before he put up $100,000 for cow power. (He received not one dollar of federal help for the methane digester.) "There are a lot of pie-in-the-sky ideas," he worked. I'm not an altruist.I wanted to make a profit."

What is the evidence?

Since cow power went on line at Mason-Dixon on Oct. 2, 1979, there have been eight days of down time, but in no instance was there a problem with the methane operation. The bugs were in the conventional generator, which kept shorting out because of a poorly designed connection.

When a second digester is added to the present one, Waybrignt and his consultants, Sheaffer & Roland, Inc. of Washington, estimate that after 20 years the methane operation alone (not counting the yet-to-be-built alcohol still) will have produced an accumulated net gain of $1.8 million (subtracting total capital and operating costs from the benefits of reduced purchase of electricity).

In putting together their balance sheet, Waybright and Sheaffer & Roland estimated that the farm's electricity bill from Metropolitan Edison would increase on the average of 6 1/2 percent over the 20-year period. A spokesman for the utility said that was a "conservative" estimate.

One of the interesting byproducts of converting manure to methane is a fluffy, odor-free material that cows prefer as bedding over sawdust. Since Waybright started putting this material in the barns, cases of mastitis (an udder disease) among his Holsteins has dropped dramatically, raising the cows' annual milk production. Waybright estimates that the bedding change results in direct and indirect savings of $36,000 annually, but this too is not calculated in the benefits column, nor is the value of the more stable form of fertilizer left behind after the methane extraction.

There is yet another benefit that is kept out of the balance sheet. Because the manure at Mason-Dixon is totally utilized as methane, fertilizer and cow bedding, none of it contributes to what is being recognized as a major source of pollution -- animal wastes that are washed off farmland into streams and rivers. Billions of dollars have been spent on new and improved sewage treatment plants but none of that money can clean up water polluted by agricultural wastes. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the total cost of the cleanup would be about $9 billion.

But the main attraction of cow power is that, coupled with alcohol production, it can help turn farms into energy producers instead of consumers (and wasters). As Waybright says, "Food production all depends on the next boatload of oil coming in. If we could make the farmer energy independent, that would be worth a couple of missiles in the silo."

But unless the federal government, and especially USDA, gets moving, American food production will remain dependent on the next boatload of oil.

To tap their energy potential, farmers need information as much as money. "The government has not sought out the proper experts in financial operations administered by Farmers Home Administration (which can make and guarantee loans to farmers)," says John T. Breuere, a lawyer in Missouri who is an expert in agricultural economics. "That's the biggest problem -- there's no drive in the FmHA to seek out technical information so it is well-equipped to deal with small farmers and small business people."

But even if the farmer comes before FmHA technically well prepared, his odds of success are slim in getting help for an alternative-energy project.

Earlier this year, Rushville, Ill., farmer C. DeWayne Bond, who had hired Breuere as a consultant, was able to get approval of $350,000 in loans from two banks for construction of an alcohol still -- on the condition that FmHA would provide a guarantee. The farmer proposed using a design from which successful stills had already been built. Several experts in alcohol production told him his project would work.

Yet FmHA turned down Bond's application.

Whatever shortcomings there are in present programs, FmHA officials say, a lot of new help will be available in fiscal 1981, beginning Oct. 1, when the office will have $525 million to make or guarantee loans for projects that would tap agricultural energy.

But after looking at the more than 50 pages of draft regulations covering the loan money, Illinois' alternate energy chief, Lehman, says they are hopelessly complicated and restrictive, and will discourage all but big agricultural operations controlled by major corporations. "The new program will be a fiasco," he predicts.

It's hard to find anybody -- outside of the Agriculture Department's headquarters on Independence Avenue NW -- who has any hope that farmers will get substantial federal aid in helping America to move toward energy independence.

Recently Sen. Charles H. Percy (Ill.), ranking Republican on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, held hearings in Springfield, Ill., on farm-based energy. The testimony was uniformly dismaying.

"FmHA will not take risks in an area that demands risk taking," says committee investigator Howard Marks. "The Small Business Administration has a very high rate of failure. It's willing to take the heat to get loans out to small business and minority business people."

Or as John Lehman says, "We didn't drill for oil with proven technology."

Most of the critics of FmHA and other government agencies that could provide help for developing farm-based energy are worried that big businesses, not small farmers, will benefit from the new loan guarantees totaling $525 million. They say the government will go to big energy operations as a sure way of meeting goals on alternate energy production.

Pat Ledford, an analyst for Sheaffer & Roland Inc., the consulting firm that designed the Waybrights' methane facility, says: "Government, by its funding policies, creates large-scale operations.Those like Mason-Dixon would be small ones, and I just don't think the government likes things on a small scale. So it goes to the big companies, who end up calling the tune."

But it is the rapidly disappearing small farms that need to move toward energy independence most urgently, for they have the least ability to absorb steep rises in the cost of fuel. Energy costs -- direct and indirect -- can include as much as 25 per cent of a farmer's expense, and more than 90 per cent of the power he uses is derived from petroleum.

Help will be coming, says the Agriculture Department. But down on the farm, whether it's in Pennsylvania or Illinois, no one believes that will happen.