A sweeping view of benefits of cover crops in Delmarva


Pollution: An important state-funded program allows farmers to reap rewards for using plants to soak up extra nitrogen fertilizer that otherwise would add to the Chesapeake's problems.

April 05, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT'S A CLEAR, still March morning, a perfect time to check out the Chesapeake from 2,000 feet up. We'll need that lofty a perspective to fully appreciate what ag researcher and farmer Russ Brinsfield has wrought across the bay landscape.

Our small plane will loop the Delmarva Peninsula, heading north and west out of Salisbury, crossing rivers - Wicomico, Nanticoke, Choptank - tracing the scalloped, bayside edges of Talbot and Queen Anne's counties north to the Bay Bridge. Then it's east to Delaware, and back home with the condos of Ocean City out one window, and the marshy toils of the upper Nanticoke out the other.

We're focused on the patchwork quilt of the heavily agricultural Eastern Shore landscape, on its different colors, and what each means for the health of the bay.

Gray is mostly land left fallow since last fall's harvests. There's a lot of it - and beneath every acre, 15 to 30 pounds of leftover nitrogen fertilizer likely is percolating through the ground water to add to the bay's pollution burden.

That's been shown by research begun nearly 20 years ago by Brinsfield and his colleague Ken Staver at the University of Maryland's Wye Research and Education Center.

There's no way around it, soil scientists say - no matter how carefully grain farmers manage their fertilizers and manures, modern cropping systems inevitably leave an excess of nutrients. In the bay these lead to depleted oxygen and water too cloudy to let vital sea grass habitats flourish.

But Brinsfield is pleased with what else he sees this morning - tens of thousands of acres of fields lush with growth, weeks before the Shore's traditional crops of corn, soybeans, melons and vegetables will begin sprouting.

He's not one to brag, but there's no doubt he finds it deeply satisfying to see years of science finally translated into farm policy that is giving the bay a much-needed boost.

Brinsfield and Staver found that planting selected "cover crops" such as rye and oats after the normal fall harvest and letting them grow without adding fertilizer could soak up as much as 20 pounds of leftover nitrogen from each acre before it leaked into waterways.

The state has begun the nation's first program to encourage such cover crops, budgeting $3.1 million last summer to pay farmers $25 an acre to plant them.

More than 500 farmers across the Eastern Shore subscribed for the full amount of the funding - 338 of them the first day of the program.

Today we're flying across the fruits of the cover crop program, about 125,000 acres where farmers are removing pollution as surely as a sewage treatment plant or an industrial smokestack scrubber. There's a clear contrast between Maryland and Delaware, which has no program.

Brinsfield wants to see a permanent annual appropriation of $6 million. That would cover about 300,000 acres in Maryland and remove about 6 million pounds of nitrogen per year.

At about a dollar per pound of pollution removed, he says, it's the cheapest way to control nitrogen, which also enters the bay from vehicles, power plants, sewage and urban runoff.

He thinks it might even prove cost effective for a nearby sewage treatment plant to pay farmers to plant cover crops, raising water and sewer rates less than if the plant upgraded to remove more nitrogen.

This year's legislature is poised to cut funds for cover crops by at least half a million dollars - a mistake. Cover crops ought to be expanded throughout the bay's watershed, to Pennsylvania and Virginia, and to more of Maryland.

Farmers won't always be able to plant them on all fields, but if we could cover the half of the watershed's 4 million acres of croplands closest to the bay, it would cost about $50 million a year and remove 40 million to 50 million pounds of nitrogen.

That's affordable, with the cost spread among about 15 million residents of the watershed, and it would go a long way toward restoring the bay's water quality (which may take a reduction of 100 million to 150 million pounds of nitrogen).

We've got to start better tending the land to have a healthy bay. An overwhelming impression on our flight was how hard we are using our bay landscapes.

Poultry houses are everywhere, manure piled high in storage sheds. Farmers are adding irrigation, pumping down the water table. Streams are channelized for drainage. Commercial forestry is clear-cutting large tracts. Housing developments and golf courses sprawl across the landscape.

None of this is inherently bad, but it must be reckoned with that there are precious few acres of the watershed that we aren't manipulating these days.

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