Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland called on the nation's farmers yesterday to help pay an expected $950,000 bill for damage to the Mall caused by the recent American Agriculture Movement protest.

Bergland said he was chipping in $25 himself and released a letter from Allan Grant, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, supporting his move.

The secretary conceded to reporters at a news conference on the tractor-gouged sod of the Mall that he knew of no precedent for his appeal, even though other demonstrators have caused property damage here.

"I think this is appropriate and necessary..." he said. "The damage... reflects badly on the image of farmers even though the damage was caused by only a small number..."

About 25 farmers heckled Bergland as he spoke, charging that estimates of the Mall damage have been inflated.

"Now I'm not from this city, so I don't know," said Wayne Peterson, an AAM spokesman from South Dakota, after the news conference. "But it seems to me $12,000 is a lot of money for a light pole."

The Park Service has estimated replacement costs for two light poles toppled by the farmers at $12,000 apiece. Other necessary repairs, the Park Service has said, include extensive sodding and reseeding, replacement and repair of numerous damaged benches, trees and trash cans and repair of masonry around the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

Earlier Park Service damage estimates had ranged as high as $2 million. Bergland said the latest lower estimates "seem to be reasonable" and said all work would be open to competitive bidding.

Bergland said he has already received "several hundred dollars" from farmers around the country which he said would be channeled to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit organization. He said that all contributions would be tax deductible.

"The Mall is our nation's front yard, and it should be kept in as good condition as farmers keep their own front yards," Bergland said.

"America's farmers and ranchers are good citizens," said Grant's letter. "It is their good reputation we will help to repair with this project."