Now comes son of PIK.

Buoyed by the big response to the payment-in-kind (PIK) program, the Department of Agriculture is toying with a variation: giving farmers more free surplus grain as an extra incentive to conserve eroding cropland.

The new approach would be an addition to the land diversion program under which farmers have agreed not to plant 82 million acres--one-fifth of the nation's cropland--as part of the effort to reduce grain surpluses and boost prices.

In return for idling their land, they will get surplus wheat, corn, rice and cotton in amounts roughly equivalent to what they would have grown this year.

A key feature of Secretary John R. Block's payment-in-kind plan involves soil conservation. Idled cropland must be seeded with grasses or legumes, which will rest the soil and prevent wind and water erosion.

But Block and Peter C. Myers, the Missouri farmer who heads the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), say they think the conservation cause can be furthered beyond that by offering farmers more surplus grain if they take additional steps.

The idea is percolating in Congress already. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) proposed such an approach in a letter to Block in January. Cochran and five co-sponsors have introduced a bill authorizing conservation uses of surplus commodities whenever a federal crop-reduction program is in place.

Myers has SCS technicians at work on option papers that he expects to deliver soon to Block, outlining possibilities for a conservation crop-swap that could be sent to Congress as an administration bill.

"There is great interest in this on the secretary's part. He directed that we take a look at this idea at about the same time we were working on it on our own," Myers said. "It is a good solid concept . . . . We think it has a lot of merit. We could reduce surpluses and save money at the same time."

The appeal of using surplus commodities instead of federal funds to stimulate conservation is heightened by Agriculture Department budget restraints, which have led to cuts in SCS spending and have drawn criticism from farm-state legislators.

The department's approach has been to target SCS spending on areas where soil erosion is worst. Congress traditionally has funneled soil-conservation money to all the states, whether their needs were acute or not, lending a pork-barrel aroma to the programs.

Critics argue that the old scattershot approach has not dealt adequately with the erosion that endangers millions of acres of U.S. cropland. New tillage techniques have slowed erosion in many areas, but erosion continues because of intense cultivation and neglect by farmers even though federal aid is available for sharing part of the costs of conservation work.

Myers stressed that the "conservation PIK" ideas are only tentative. He said the program could be set up only at a time of large surpluses, only with assurances that the U.S. grain reserve was ample and only if Congress gave the go-ahead.

He said the SCS is considering these possible approaches:

Farmers who agree to permanent conservation programs, perhaps for as long as 10 years, might get federal surpluses instead of or as part of the federal cost-sharing money they might receive for protecting their soil.

Farmers already in the PIK program might be offered a bonus of 2 or 3 percent more in surplus commodities if they agreed to carry out a permanent conservation plan.

"The idea would be to put that land back into trees or grass on a long-term basis," Myers said, "But any land put into the program would have to be highly erodible land to start with."

Block, in announcing the surprisingly high signup in the surplus-reduction PIK program, added a cautionary note that could make a conservation PIK attractive to farmers.

Block said that while farmers say they will idle 82 million acres, the final figure probably will be lower. PIK participants must stay in that program, but they may back out of a companion program that provides cash payments for retiring land.

He said the higher commodity prices expected from the PIK program could entice many farmers out of the voluntary part of the diversion program, reducing its impact and putting more strain on overworked croplands.