The environment was No. 1 with farmers long before pollsters showed it was a top priority for Canadians. Since 1993, a program called the Environmental Farm Plan has been operating in Ontario, helping more than 33,000 farmers make their operations as eco-friendly as possible — keeping livestock out of streams, erecting shelterbelts to cut down on erosion, and other such activities.

But if the environment is such an important part of our national psyche, why is this farm program is now being treated as second-class by funding authorities?

That's what Don McCabe wants to know. McCabe, the no-nonsense vice-president of the Guelph-based Ontario Federation of Agriculture, wonders why farmers have been, in his words, "left in the dark" about the continuation of the environmental farm program after its funding expires. He's troubled the farm community has met with futility asking Ottawa for almost two years for an assurance this program would continue. None has been forthcoming, because federal farm programs that gained traction under the Liberals are now being revamped.

That puts farmers in a tough spot. Through ongoing lobbying, they've been able to convince Ottawa to support their environmental farm agenda over the years. But will it fit into the current government's longer view of agriculture?

It better, says McCabe. It's become part of farming's culture and it's going strong. In the past three years, more than 3,800 new participants have taken part in the program. Environmentally related workshops have been oversubscribed by more than 40 per cent, with some 7,300 farmers signing up.

The program traces its roots to the earliest days of this province's bridge between farming and the environment — a Guelph-based organization called Agriculture Groups Concerned About Resources and the Environment (AGCARE). Ontario's farming community got behind the Environmental Farm Plan because it wanted to make its own rules. Farmers think enough regulations are handed them from the province and Ottawa, and in the early 1990s, they knew pressure was coming to be more environmentally sound.

With AGCARE and guidance from environmental experts from the University of Guelph, such as Gord Surgeoner and others, they created the Environmental Farm Plan program, now administered by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

Farmers like it because they help determine their own farm's environmental program in the company of their peers. Using a prescribed document, they chart their farm's normal activities and note where potential hot spots might occur. They submit their plan to a review committee that's predominantly made up of farmers, and get detailed feedback on their status quo.

Through the program, they can get funding to fix problems on the farm that are, or could be, environmental ills. Over the past three years, nearly $35 million of federal support has been used by producers to address such matters.

"With this level of uptake, it has to be obvious to our governments that Ontario farmers take their responsibility for protecting the environment very serious," says federation president Geri Kamenz.

The problem is that the Environmental Farm Plan, like most other agriculture support programs, is wrapped up in the overall federal funding agreement for farmers. The current agreement ends next month, and the farm community is anxiously awaiting news of an extension. With a federal election in the wings, farmers are concerned a massive new farm program is a long ways off from being enacted.

And that irks Kamenz and McCabe. It also presents problems for farmers wanting to begin new projects now and in the spring.

To McCabe, there's no reason for this to be a political football. Given how Ontarians keep saying the environment is at the top of their list of concerns, he's confident about public support for farmers' efforts to maintain good environmental practices and to run the cleanest operations possible.

He'd tell Ottawa that, he says, if only he could get someone to listen