KENNEDYVILLE -- Farmers are a curious breed. They're always keeping an eye on their neighbor's fields and his farming practices. But this year, farmers around this rural Kent County community are paying more attention then ever to Gary Miller's corn crop.
Gary Miller and his three brothers run 3-M's Farm, a grain-growing operation that spreads over 3,000 acres of some of the flattest land in all of Maryland. But it's just a small patch of their farm -- a 400-acre cornfield that butts up against Turner's Creek -- that captured the attention of farmers throughout the county and around much of the rest of the state this year. This acreage may have a lot to do with the way farmers in Maryland and other parts of the country farm in the future.
The 400 acres are enrolled in a new U.S. Department of Agriculture three-year test program designed to determine whether farmers can cut back on the chemicals they spray on their fields and still make enough money to stay in farming.
It comes as no surprise that the Millers are active in a program to curtail the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are suspected of damaging the Chesapeake Bay and may be a cause of the state's unusually high cancer rate.
"As farmers, we care about the environment," says Gary's younger brother, Ken. "We're young farmers, and we're going to be living on this land for a long time. Our children are going to be living on it. We do something stupid and we suffer. Whatever we put on those fields could eventually make its way down to our well water."
What did come as somewhat of a surprise to the Miller brothers as they sat around the kitchen table recently tabulating the financial results of the growing season is that they were able to cut their production costs on the land enrolled in the USDA's Integrated Crop Management program by $14 an acre.
Gary Miller says it cost the farmers $106 an acre to plant the 400 acres of corn in the program, vs. $120 an acre for the other corn acreage.
While $14 may not seem like a lot to a city dweller, Mr. Miller is quick to point out that "$14 over 3,000 acres is a lot of money." His brother Ken makes the point that it can be the difference between making a deposit in the bank at the end of the harvest season or going deeper into debt.
The Miller brothers caution their fellow farmers not to jump to any conclusions from their results. They say their success may be misleading. "This was a bad year because it was such a good year," Ken Miller says.
A few hours later, as he is bouncing across a cornfield in the cab of his 7-year-old GMC four-wheel-drive pickup with a 12-gauge shotgun on the seat beside him, he explains why this was not a particularly good year to judge the federal test program.
"It was a good year for growing crops," he says. "It was an almost perfect growing season. The corn just shot up out of the ground." The young plants grew so rapidly that a much smaller percentage than usual fell victim to menacing cutworms, which do most of their damage to younger stalks less than 3 inches tall.
As a result of the ideal growing conditions, the Millers did not have to go back to the fields and spray chemicals to control the curly pest that can devastate a field of corn. "Next year could be entirely different," he warns.
James R. Richardson, executive director of Maryland's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service office, says that 55 farms in the state participated in the federal program to some extent this year.
Although no formal results have been tabulated, Mr. Richardson says that based on his observations and comments from farmers participating in the program, he anticipates a 20 percent decline in the use of pesticides on these farms this year. The ASCS office administers all USDA programs in Maryland.
Mr. Richardson was also encouraged by the Millers' $14-an-acre savings, saying that if farmers can cut their production costs, economic factors will encourage farmers to reduce their use of chemicals after the federal programs ends in 1992.
The Millers plan to stay in the program, which is aimed at significantly reducing the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus making their way into the state's waterways. The 400 acres they have in the program this year are adjacent to Turner Creek, which feeds into the bay, about 3 miles away.
Excesses of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus rob the water of oxygen. Acting like an overdose of fertilizer, the nutrients cause a sudden growth of algae that blocks sunlight and sucks (( oxygen out of the water when it decays.
Maryland is one of 45 states that signed up to participate in the USDA's program this year, says George T. Denley, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department.
Not all of them participated this year, because the department didn't get the needed information out in time for farmers to change the way they usually work their fields.