Benefits of planting cover crops promoted Conference aims to show investment is worthwhile


March 19, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- In the battle to stem the flow of harmful nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay, the investment in cover crops is money well spent.

That was the message to farmers from New York to North Carolina yesterday from the opening round of a two-day conference on the benefits of nutrient-absorbing planting sponsored by the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and its Cooperative Extension Service.

While nobody disputed the benefits of cover crops -- the planting of such nitrogen absorbing crops as winter wheat, rye and barley after the fall harvest -- there were some questions about whether it is economically viable for farmers.

The leaching of nutrients from farms into streams has been linked to many of the problems of the bay. Scientists suspect that excess nutrients in the water contributed to last summer's Pfiesteria outbreaks.

Cover crops can reduce the amount of nitrogen in ground water that makes its way into the bay by 50 percent, said Thomas Simpson, coordinator of Chesapeake Bay programs for the state Agriculture Department.

With that in mind, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has set aside $4.5 million from his $41 million, three-year war against Pfiesteria to help farmers pay for the plantings.

The funding is directed at Eastern Shore farms, where the widespread use of chicken manure as a fertilizer is seen as a source of bay pollution.

Assuming the General Assembly approves the governor's plan, the state will pay farmers $30 an acre to plant rye on their fields after harvesting their corn or soybeans. Farmers would receive $25 an acre for winter wheat and $20 for barley.

The plantings are designed to take out the nitrogen from the soil left behind from the fall harvesting of corn and soybeans.

Russell B. Brinsfield, director of the Wye Research and Education Center on the Eastern Shore, said there is some reluctance on the part of farmers to plant cover crops because they fear it will reduce yields, and profit, from their corn or soybean harvests.

"To sell this to farmers, we will have to prove that they will still be able to make a living," one agriculture official in the audience told Michele Wander, a soil scientist with the University of Illinois, another speaker at the conference.

Wander told the meeting that cover crops can boost the quality of a farmer's soil over a five to 10 year period.

"That won't matter," said another member of the audience, if farmers "can't pay the mortgage or buy food."

Simpson said that a government subsidy is needed to make cover crops attractive to farmers.

The conference, held at the Tidewater Inn, was attended by about 80 agriculture research professionals, including extension agents, from six states who will take the message back to farmers in their regions.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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