MONTPELIER -- A group of northwestern Vermont farmers were given reason to hope Thursday that $900,000 of the state's federal stimulus assistance could come their way before the snow melts.

The money would purchase 12 pieces of specialized farm equipment, and pay operators to run them. The machinery would be used to aerate 25,000 acres of fields in the northern Lake Champlain watershed before farmers spread manure.

Members of the Farmers Watershed Alliance told the Senate Agriculture Committee that demonstration projects in Franklin County have proven that much less manure runs off from aerated fields -- and farmers' hay harvest can nearly double.

The machines punch thousands of holes in the soil, creating space to capture manure and deliver it to the roots of grass.

If the project worked, it could substantially reduce pollution of algae-plagued Missisquoi Bay while giving hard-pressed farmers a boost, alliance leader Roger Rainville said.

"It's a no-brainer," Alburgh farmer Darlene Reynolds told lawmakers.

She and others said farmers wouldn't have to be persuaded to make use of the equipment. With milk prices at almost record lows, however, farmers cannot afford to buy or operate the machines themselves.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, one of the most powerful legislators in the Statehouse, was among those who embraced the idea.

What's more, she told the farmers she thinks the $1 million can be found in Vermont's share of federal stimulus money dedicated to reducing water pollution.

"I'm captivated by this project. For $900,000 we're crazy not to attempt this to see if it increases productivity and cleans up our surface waters," Bartlett said. "It's a minor investment to cover gigantic acreage."

"I'm totally committed to finding dollars for this," she added.

The farmers' proposal galvanized the committee because of its sweeping nature. Most attempts to limit farm runoff pollution happen one farm, even one field, at a time and progress has been painfully slow.

For example, the government spent about $50,000 last year to help farmers plant cover crops -- another pollution preventative -- on 2,890 acres.

Rainville said the farmers visited a number of state agencies looking for money for their proposal. State officials told them they could find money for only two of the machines.

Sen. Harold Giard, D-Addison, added his voice of support, though wondering if more of the machines could be stationed in his county.

"This is an excellent opportunity to change the culture of the way we do things on our farms," he said.

Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or cpage@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com.