Dave Dyer of the American Farmland Trust realized about a month ago that the House Agriculture Committee wanted something in return for the committee's support on environmental measures Dyer wanted in the 1990 farm bill.

"I can't remember exactly who said it, but the phrase that sticks in my mind was, 'The committee is in a forgiving and generous mood,' " Dyer said. "You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see there would be some help for us if we supported them on the other thing."

The "other thing" turned out to be an amendment by Reps. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to exclude rich farmers from benefits of federal farm subsidy programs.

It was a popular measure, and the committee regarded it as a serious challenge. The committee wanted help from environmentalists to defeat it.

Some organizations, including American Farmland Trust, balked. Armey-Schumer had a lot of backing from liberals and consumers, natural environmental constituencies. But other groups went with the committee.

On July 25 Agriculture Committee Chairman E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.) rose to submit letters from the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society and two other groups describing why the amendment would be bad for the environment. Armey-Schumer was clobbered, 263 to 159.

Last Wednesday, a week after the Armey-Schumer vote, de la Garza rose again, to present two packages of environmental legislation as amendments to the bill. These measures, blessed by the committee, passed the full House by unanimous consent. Two hours later the whole bill was approved, 327 to 91.

In opposing Armey-Schumer, the environmentalists tarnished their image as simon-pure backers of things dear to consumers. But they also gained respect as deal-makers, not loath to broker with the enemy to get what they wanted. It was a trade-off most were willing to make. Ultimately, it worked.

"There could have been an alliance with Armey-Schumer; it could have gone either way," said Ken Cook of the Center for Resource Economics. "My own view was that the committee negotiating process was the one that was going to pan out for us."

The environmentalists forged a working relationship with the committee months ago, deducing that the best way to influence U.S. agricultural policy was to cooperate with those writing it. The farm bill, a multibillion-dollar piece of legislation, will regulate U.S. agriculture for the next five years.

By the time the committee finished deliberations June 14, the bill had three environmental compromises written into it -- on water quality, penalties for draining and planting wetlands and wetland easements (payments to take wetlands out of production).

There were five measures still outstanding: pesticide recordkeeping, compliance with conservation regulations, pesticide use to improve appearance of produce, labeling organic foods and prohibitions on overseas sale of banned pesticides.

Between the end of committee hearings and beginning of floor debate July 23, the environmentalists and the committee reached compromises on everything but organic labeling. The deals were cut in long sessions culminating the weekend of July 21-22.

Environmentalists felt the talks were helpful as a way to cement their new, symbiotic relationship with the committee.

Some also felt they were on a roll. "We had some leverage, because it looked like we could win on the floor with some of the amendments," said Justin Ward, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This enabled us to bargain from strength."

The committee saw it somewhat differently. Commodity and farm interest groups, the committee's traditional allies, were worried about Armey-Schumer's possibilities in a House in which urban constituencies predominated.

"The green {environmental} vote is important because the House is an urban entity now," one committee source said. "When members go to the floor and don't have a vested interest, they often ask, 'What's the green vote on this?' "

The source acknowledged that the committee began mentioning Armey-Schumer early in the negotiations, and that "everybody was very up-front about it."

"We made it clear that we had a vested interest in resolving our differences," the source said. "But there was also a desire to encourage the environmental community at least to look at the downside of Armey-Schumer."

By excluding rich farmers from subsidies, the committee argued, the farmers would abandon the programs. And once outside the purview of the farm bill they would be immune to most environmental regulations.

Cook's Center for Resource Economics made this point in the letter that de la Garza read into the record on the House floor. Environmental policies in the farm bill, the center said, "are designed to link environmental protection to participation in USDA programs. The greater the program participation for affected farmers, the greater the leverage for environmental protection."

But others refused to go along. The NRDC's Ward, for instance, sent a letter supporting the Armey-Schumer amendment and calling arguments against it "misplaced." Dyer and the American Farmland Trust simply kept quiet -- "I didn't think I could or should respond to specific issues."

But the committee prevailed. Armey, for one, was a realist. "Very early on we felt we had the environmentalists working with us," he said. "But they had too much to lose by sticking with us."

Dyer concluded that bucking the committee was a waste of time, and was finally convinced that opposing Armey-Schumer was essential in getting strong environmental legislation.

The farm bill was a legislative tour de force for the committee. By satisfying the environmentalists and squashing the Armey-Schumer opposition, the two most contentious aspects of the farm bill were eliminated.

"There are no weak sisters on the Agriculture Committee," Armey said. "They are very good at doing what committees do. They spend five years filling their silos with political chits, and when the time comes, they call them in."