When Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Howard Richards learned that his state was entitled to millions of dollars from the penalties levied on oil companies for overcharges in the 1970s, he set wheels turning in behalf of an idea heavy with political irony.

Why not take some of that money, he wondered, and put it to work to help wean Wisconsin farmers away from the expensive petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides that increasingly were eroding their profits and threatening the state's environment?

When the penalty funds came through from Washington earlier this year, the state earmarked $2 million for a project intended to inspire farmers to take up farming techniques that will save more and pollute less.

Applications are rolling in. And project director Ken Rineer estimates that about $800,000 will be handed out in the next year to bankroll the most ambitious state-run "sustainable agriculture" project in the country.

"Secretary Richards' interest is in keeping farmers on the farm. The profitability angle appeals to him," Rineer said. "But part of the reason also is environmental. We have a problem with groundwater pollution, and perhaps we can change that if we can show farmers methods for reducing contamination."

Similar, if less dramatic, things are happening coast to coast. Pushed by farmers' concerns about costs, environmental pollution and personal health, state governments and universities are gradually climbing on the bandwagon of change in agriculture.

Whether it is called sustainable, renewable, regenerative, organic, low-input or something else, it is essentially the same: an attempt to reduce or eliminate chemical pesticides and to improve soil fertility by returning to the crop rotations that were common before the age of chemical fertilizers.

The University of Maine now offers an undergraduate degree course in sustainable agriculture. The University of California at Santa Cruz has become a center of sustainable-agriculture teaching. Vermont, Minnesota and many other universities include sustainable courses in their curricula. Iowa State University is setting up a major research center for sustainable farming. Others have begun research programs.

"There's almost an explosion of interest. It's hard to track -- and I'm doing this full-time," said Garth Youngberg, executive director of the Institute for Alternative Agriculture in Greenbelt. "The real explosion is occurring among conventional farmers. It is a convergence of economic stress, the search for more viable alternatives and concern about environmental matters, particularly water quality.

"There is anxiety about how long the government-support programs will last, anxiety about how many farmers could survive without the programs. They are positioning themselves. There's a lot of rethinking, searching and looking going on . . . a sense that they have to do something while there's time."

Warren Sahs, a University of Nebraska agronomist who championed organic-farming research years before it became popular, added: "There's a definite groundswell among the land-grant universities, an upsurge of interest in the last two or three years, especially among younger, new staff members . . . . There's a bandwagon going, and a lot of people are jumping on. I'm not being critical; it's a wonderful development."

But here in Washington, the bandwagon described by Sahs is stuck in a rut somewhere between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Department of Agriculture while USDA bureaucrats apparently wrangle over control of the first congressional spending ever earmarked for government research into "low-input" farming methods.

After four years of opposition, USDA agreed to language in the 1985 farm bill that directed research into low-input techniques in the interest of reducing farmers' costs. Although USDA sought no funding for the studies, it agreed this year to a $7.5 million appropriation sought by a coalition of alternative-agriculture groups.

The Senate's agricultural appropriations bill for fiscal 1988 designated about $7 million for low-input farming studies, with an emphasis on getting new information to farmers. But House appropriators limited new spending to $2.6 million, reacting to Agricultural Research Service claims that it already spends about $100 million annually on research with low-input applications.

While official Washington debates, farmers such as Carl Pulvermacher of Lone Rock, Wis., are not waiting for the experts' help. It is almost a case of vice versa; about a dozen university scientists and county extension agents showed up earlier this month when Pulvermacher and fellow no-chemical farmers held a field day to demonstrate their work.

Pulvermacher, a former chemical fertilizer salesman, has raised corn and alfalfa without chemicals of any sort since he and his wife bought the land they were renting in 1982. His dairy herd's production is far above the state average. His corn and alfalfa, fertilized with manure, produce exceptional yields. Crop rotations control weeds and pests. He calculates that his costs are at least $5,000 less per year than neighboring farmers'.

"The reason I got into this was an idealist environmental reason. The reason I stay in it is profitability," he said. "I maintain that sustainable agriculture has kept me on this farm . . . . Some people say I'm going back 40 years, but what I am doing is just common-sense agriculture."

But, he added, textbooks are not likely to give farmers easy answers. "A lot of my decision-making is seat-of-the-pants; I can't sit down in March and make my planting decisions. There's no recipe for this, and it bothers people. A lot of farmers want a recipe, and it isn't there," Pulvermacher said.

"I was forced to make the change because of economics," he added. "If I didn't have the interest and principal costs on this farm, holy fuzz, would I be having a riot. There's nothing radical about using less inputs."