The planting of cover crops by Maryland farmers, a practice that can benefit the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay, is expected to expand significantly this year, according to state agriculture officials.
Cover crops - typically wheat, barley or rye - are planted after farmers harvest their main crops, usually corn or soybeans. As the cover crop grows through the winter, it draws excess nutrients from the ground, preventing them from entering waterways. The practice also stabilizes the soil and helps keep it from washing away in winter.
"Science has proven that farm cover crops are the greatest way to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus leaking into the bay," said Beth Lefebvre, a spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"Nitrogen pollution is one of the largest threats to the bay's health," she added. "It can feed the bay's dead zones, areas of the bay where there is too little oxygen in the water to support a healthy ecosystem."
The state legislature approved $8 million this year - double last year's amount - to help farmers pay for planting cover crops. The figure grew by $1 million after farmers oversubscribed to the program.
State officials are expecting about 250,000 acres to be planted in cover crops this year, said Bob Ensor, administrator of the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost Share Program, a division of the state Agriculture Department. That would compare with about 135,000 acres last year and 50,000 acres the year before, Ensor said.
The goal is eventually to have 600,000 acres of Maryland's plantable farmland in cover crops, Ensor said. That would meet the target set by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established to improve the health of the bay.
With the reimbursement program, farmers typically can break even or come out slightly ahead by planting cover crops. After the fall harvest, farmers can plant the cover crops, then plow them under in the spring before planting their staple crops.
Seeking to make it easier for farmers to sign up for the program, state officials extended the registration period to seven weeks, from June 12 through July 28. That compares with four weeks last year and two weeks the previous year, Ensor said. Farmers can sign up for the cost-sharing program at the soil conservation offices in each county.
Other enhancements include:
Raising from 500 acres to 1,000 acres the amount of land eligible for inclusion into the program.
Allowing farmers to harvest cover crops in spring for use as animal feed or other purposes, though the reimbursement rate is lower.
Reduced paperwork, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has withdrawn from the program because of budget cuts (the state is picking up the portion of the cost that the USDA previously paid).
This year, the state Agriculture Department lists barley, canola, rapeseed, rye, ryegrass, spring oats, triticale, brassicas (kale) and wheat as eligible cover crops.
All seed used must meet Maryland seed law and regulatory standards and must have a minimum germination rate of 80 percent. The use of nonpoultry manure as fertilizer is permitted only under certain conditions.
Applicants must also be in compliance with the state nutrient management laws passed by the General Assembly after the 1997 outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida in waterways flowing into the bay.
Requests for cover crop funds will be approved on a first-come basis, Ensor said, with cost-sharing assistance ranging between $20 and $50 an acre.
According to the state Agriculture Department, research indicates that cover crops planted in early fall provide the greatest water-quality benefits, so the earlier farmers get crops planted, the greater the reimbursement will be.
Farmers who plant by Oct. 1 are eligible to receive $50 an acre, with reimbursement dropping to $40 for those who plant by Oct. 15, and $30 by Nov. 5
Ensor said the price drops to $20 per acre for cover crops that farmers harvest in the spring.
Students with an interest in pursuing an agriculture-related career can get help paying college expenses from Maryland grain farmers.
The Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board is offering two $2,500 scholarships to students with a farm background.
Applicants must be Maryland residents enrolled in or accepted to a four-year institution working toward a degree, or accepted to a two-year school with an agriculture program. Applicants, or members of their immediate families, must be involved in the production of grain.
Selection is based on an applicant's agricultural background, family farm involvement, financial need, grade point average, agriculture-related studies, career goals and extracurricular activities.
Information: Maryland Grain Producers Association, 410-956- 5771. Applications must be filed with the association by June 1.