Bay cleanup program marks 10 years

December 12, 1993|By Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS -- A Chesapeake Bay environmental cleanup program that has provided $31 million to help hundreds of Maryland farmers curb agriculture pollution recently reached its 10-year mark.

The Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share program, run by the state Agriculture Department, subsidizes the installation costs of "best management practices" -- agriculture techniques that reduce pollution of the bay. These include planting trees along the shoreline, building storage facilities for animal wastes and constructing ponds to collect runoff.

Between the program's inception in July 1983 and October, farmers have taken 8,187 anti-pollution measures with state help, Agriculture Department statistics show. On average, farmers spend $5,000 to $10,000 on each measure. The state subsidies can cover as much as 87.5 percent of the installation costs.

Kent County, on the Eastern Shore, has received the most money -- $5.9 million. Kent is also the Maryland county with the largest proportion of its land devoted to farm use, according to the Agriculture Department.

Two other Eastern Shore counties -- Caroline, with a total of $2.7 million in grants, and Somerset, with $2.4 million -- round out the top of the list.

Of the 26 pollution prevention methods the program subsidizes, the most popular this year is the planting of cover crops.

Cover crops are planted after the harvest, particularly harvests of corn and soybeans. They prevent soil erosion by holding the earth, and use up nutrients that might otherwise have leached into ground water, said Mark Berry, who directs the cost-share program.

Mr. Berry said that 625 farms had requested help in planting such winter-weather cover crops as wheat and rye. Of those, 334 farms have been seeded.

Farmers apply through their local Soil Conservation District offices. Field technicians conduct two spot checks during the period the cover crop is in place.

Farmers generally "don't jump in" when new agriculture programs are introduced, says Dawn Early, soil conservation manager for Frederick County and Catoctin districts.

But interest in the cover crop among farmers has more than doubled in Frederick, Carroll, Somerset and Worcester counties.

At least part of the cover crop boom is a result of this summer's heat wave and subsequent drought, which cost Maryland farmers more than $40 million in crop losses.

Simpson Dunahoo, who farms in Wicomico County's Hebron, lost half his soybean crop and salvaged only two-thirds of the corn on his 300 acres. But Mr. Dunahoo, a field supervisor for the county Soil Conservation District, decided it was time to salvage what he could and prepare for the next harvest.

What the disappointing crop took out of his pocketbook, it left in the soil: fertilizers the plants did not use. The cover crops will keep that fertilizer out of the ground water and out of the Chesapeake Bay.

Because of the poor harvest, money is tight for Mr. Dunahoo. The cost-share program offered welcomed assistance.

"I do everything I can to take care of my farm," Mr. Dunahoo says. "At the same time, I think anything that we're called on to help benefit the general public, then the general public should help pay for it."

Agricultural runoff remains a concern with environmental groups and Gov. William Donald Schaefer. In 1987, the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council, a joint effort among Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., pledged to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the bay by 40 percent by the year 2000.

Herman Hill, who farms in Kent County and participates in the cost-share program, said farmers were under heavy pressure to participate in cleaning up the bay.

"I think the farmers are doing as much as we can afford to do," he said.

He said some of the effort was voluntary and had gone unacknowledged.

"How does a farmer create the mass of paperwork to be able to prove what he's doing to clean up?" Mr. Hill asked. "Lots of farmers do something on their own and they never get credit for it."

For the majority of practices subsidized by the cost-share program, including cover crops, the state caps assistance at $35,000 for each farm. The cap rises to $50,000 for building animal waste storage facilities. To participate, farmers must draft a nutrient reduction plan.

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