With government help, farmers find it pays to cut use of chemicals


April 01, 1992|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

BURKITTSVILLE -- Joseph and Elaine Hottel are spraying fewer chemicals on their rolling fields of corn and alfalfa at the base of the Catoctin Mountains, but they're raking in more dollars.

The Hottels are among the small but growing group of farmers participating in a three-year U.S. Department of Agriculture test to determine whether they can reduce their use of environmentally hazardous chemicals and still reap a profit.

Under the program, trained field inspectors, or scouts, assess weed and insect damage and advise farmers on the amount of spraying necessary. Meanwhile, soil testing by the University of Maryland determines which nutrients are needed. Farmers then apply only the amount of fertilizer needed to ensure a healthy crop.

During the test period, the Agriculture Department covers up to 75 percent of any increased costs associated with the new farming management style, up to $7 an acre.

Although data on the "integrated crop management" program is still coming in, early readings seem positive.

"There's no doubt about it," said Mr. Hottel as he pulled a handful of soil-testing papers from a desk drawer in his office, formerly the milking parlor for a herd of Holsteins. "We saved lots of money."

Mr. Hottel, who farms nearly 4,000 acres near this rural Frederick County community and across the Potomac River in Virginia, estimated that he saved $30,000 to $40,000 last year while cutting his use of fertilizer by about 20 percent. He saved another $5,000 by reducing insecticide use more than 50 percent. The cutbacks had no adverse impact on crop yields.

"With the costs of everything being what they are today," he said, "the only money a farmer can make is what he saves by not spending foolishly on chemicals and fertilizers."

James C. Richardson, director of the Maryland Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service office, which administers federal programs in the state, said farmers tell him the program is economically viable even without the subsidy.

When the program began in 1990, 55 farmers in Frederick, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne's and St. Mary's counties signed up. The office had hoped for 20 from each county.

This year, 83 producers are involved. The program is also being administered in 44 other states. With growing congressional pressure to regulate the use of farm chemicals, Mr. Richardson said, the programs give agriculture a chance to clean its own house.

One of the aims of the Agriculture Department's test program in Maryland is to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants from fertilizer and manure that make their way into well water, steams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

Nitrogen in fertilizer turns up as nitrates in well water, "and that's a health concern in rural communities," Mr. Richardson said.

High levels of nitrates present a risk to pregnant women and children, he said. Nitrogen and phosphorus also are major pollutants of the bay.

Herbicides and insecticides also contain chemicals that can pose a health risk to humans and have been linked to bird deaths.

Michael Linsenbigler of the Washington Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service office, said reports from 26 farms in Kent, Queen Anne's and St. Mary's counties show that participating farmers cut their nitrogen use by more than 80,000 pounds and phosphorus by nearly 41,000 pounds in 1990.

Like most farming operations, cutting back on chemical sprays involves risks. Farmers in the test program are asked to put the fate of their crops into the hands of field inspectors, who assess weed and insect damage and advise farmers on the amount of spraying necessary. The inspector's role is critical: to detect infestation by insects such as the corn borer before it becomes serious and recommend action.

Gary Miller, a Kent County farmer who has a 400-acre corn field that adjoins Turner's Creek, said he has cut his total production costs about $12 an acre by curtailing the use of insecticides.

"Alfalfa is why we're in the program," says Jeff England, operator of a 450-acre spread near New Market. He said that an infestation of insects can destroy a crop before there are signs of a problem. Thus, he relies heavily on the weekly reports from the scout inspecting his fields.

There have been times, Mr. England said, when insects were detected but the inspector suggested not using an insecticide because the cost of spraying was greater than that of the damage done by the bugs.

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