Cover-crop program rules eased

Harvesting permitted

sign-up time extended

August 28, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

In an attempt to get more farmers to participate, Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced major changes to the state's cover-crop program yesterday.

In addition to extending the deadline to sign up for the plan, which is designed to prevent harmful farm runoff into the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, the state will allow farmers to harvest their cover crops at the end of the season to sell as grain or to use as animal feed.

In past years under the program, farmers who planted wheat or barley as cover crops in the fall were required to plow them under in the spring. For the first time, farmers will be allowed to plant cover crops after harvesting their soybeans.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture decided last month to extend the program statewide. Except in 1999, the plan had been limited to Eastern Shore farms.

In 1999, the state paid Central Maryland farmers to plant cover crops to help them cope with a severe drought.

Bradley H. Powers, deputy agriculture secretary, said the program was initially expanded to reduce the amount of farm pollutants going into the bay.

He said yesterday's action was taken to help farmers cope with one of the most severe droughts of the past 100 years.

Powers said the state will pay farmers up to $20 an acre to plant cover crops. "It's a way to help farmers who lost their income when their corn and soybeans dried up in the field," he said.

He said a farmer can plant winter wheat as a cover crop in the fall and possibly sell it for $3 to $4 a bushel in the spring.

Farmers who plant barley will be able to use it to feed their livestock.

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

The state budgeted $2.4 million for the program and recently added $250,000 to bring the total to $2.65 million. The money was to be distributed on a first-come, first served basis.

The initial sign-up period for farmers ended Aug. 16. The new deadline is Sept. 6.

Powers said about $1 million is still available.

There are several reasons for that, said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.

She said the state reduced its payments to farmers this year to $20 an acre from $25 an acre last year. And some farmers fear that planting cover crops will draw moisture from fields suffering from the drought, she said.

Powers said other farmers are nervous about spending money to plant cover crops after seeing their corn and soybeans destroyed by drought. "We don't pay up front," Powers said.

"We reimburse farmers. You need to get a crop to grow to get paid."

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