Farm cover-crop program heads for statewide use

Oats, barley, rye, wheat to help bay, and the soil

`Effective on Eastern Shore'

July 15, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

For the first time in recent years, the Maryland Department of Agriculture is extending its popular farmland cover-crop program statewide.

Under the program, farmers are paid by the state to plant cover crops such as oats, barley, rye and wheat on fields after the fall harvest of other crops. Cover crops are considered the most cost-effective way to reduce harmful nutrient runoff from farmland into the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways.

The program benefits farmers by adding organic matter to the soil, limiting soil erosion and retaining moisture in the soil.

Royden N. Powell III, assistant secretary of the Maryland Agriculture Department, said the state has budgeted $2.4 million for the program this year. He said $1.6 million is designated for the Eastern Shore and $800,000 for the rest of the state.

Powell said state spending on cover crops has been pretty much limited to the Eastern Shore after outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in 1997 resulted in the closing of three Maryland waterways that flow into the bay, triggered panic over the safety of Maryland seafood and disrupted the state's tourism industry.

One exception, he said, was in 1999, when the state paid Central Maryland farmers to plant cover crops as a way of helping them cope with a severe drought that dried pastures.

Powell said it was important to extend the program because runoff from farms as far west as Garrett County can eventually make its way into the bay.

Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the department's action, saying cover crops are the most effective way to absorb excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil.

"It has been very effective on the Eastern Shore," she said.

Pierno said the foundation lobbied the governor's office for $6 million this year, and she is hopeful that the state will put more money into the program next year.

Edward Sanders, who administers the program, said the state will pay farmers up to $20 an acre to plant cover crops. He said this would offset most, if not all, of a farmer's costs.

Powell said farmers can begin applying for funding July 22, and the sign-up period runs until Aug. 16. He said requests will be approved on a first-come, first-served basis.

Sanders said that while reducing runoff, cover crops greatly reduce soil erosion, especially on the hilly farm fields in Western Maryland. Cover crops also draw excess nutrients, such as nitrogen, from the soil.

In a typical application, a farmer will plant a cover crop after harvesting corn or soybeans.

To be eligible for funding, farmers must have met the requirements of the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998, which requires farm operations to establish nutrient-management plans designed to limit fertilizer and manure use to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil.

Farmers can register for the funding at county soil conservation district offices.

The maximum amount of funding per farm operation is $5,000, with a minimum enrollment of 10 acres.

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