SUDLERSVILLE - -Hans Schmidt's fields were so muddy his van nearly bogged down as he drove across the flat Eastern Shore landscape to where he'd knocked off planting wheat the other night - just ahead of another downpour.
It's been a wet year for farmers, and that could spell trouble for the Chesapeake Bay. Schmidt and other Maryland farmers have been in a race with the weather lately - trying to get the last of their fall crops harvested and their fields replanted in pollution-absorbing "cover crops" before winter sets in.
"Spring was so wet, it was just like this domino effect," Schmidt said last week as he eyed a brown field of ripe soybeans too soaked to harvest. "Everything was delayed."
Unusually rainy weather may be the main reason why farmers have decided to plant fewer acres of cover crops this fall than they did last year, despite the state's offer to pay them up to $85 an acre. According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, about 330,500 acres are enrolled in the state-subsidized program, compared with 387,000 acres signed up last year.
Whatever the cause, it's a setback for state officials, who consider such cover crops crucial to preventing fertilizer that's left in the fields after autumn harvest from washing into nearby streams. Such farm runoff is a leading source of the nutrient pollution that creates a vast oxygen-starved dead zone in the Chesapeake every summer.
Under pressure to re-energize the lagging bay cleanup, state officials have pledged to nearly double the amount of farmland planted in cover crops by 2011 - to 460,000 acres, or roughly half of all croplands in the state. But instead of expanding the greening of fields this fall, the total coverage seems likely to be smaller than last year's.
"That's very disappointing," said Russell Brinsfield, executive director of the University of Maryland's Center for Agro-Ecology and himself a farmer. Reaching the state's goal in the face of such slippage is "going to be a huge challenge," he added.
Scientists consider cover crops to be among the most cost-effective strategies farmers have to keep excess fertilizer from washing off their fields into nearby streams. For that reason, the state pays growers to seed their fields in the fall, with a bonus if they kill the crop back in spring so it recycles some nutrients for the next crop to be planted.
Farmers typically plant grains such as wheat, rye and barley for cover crops, since they can grow through the winter. But some growers like Schmidt also are trying leafy crops such as forage radish, which boasts dandelion-like vegetation and a long white taproot.
Agriculture officials say they're not sure why farmers enrolled fewer acres in the state's cover crop program, though they believe weather had a lot to do with it. Heavy rains early this year delayed spring planting, so that they were busy harvesting wheat this summer during the two-week sign-up window for the state program.
"If you weigh whether 'I'm going to come in and sign up for cover crop' versus trying to get my wheat harvest in, the majority of farmers - and I'm one of them - would say 'I'm going to get my wheat harvest in first,' " said Schmidt, 46, who raises corn, soybeans, barley, wheat, hay, tomatoes, green beans and grapes on 1,800 acres near Sudlersville.
Tony Riggi, manager of the Queen Anne's County soil conservation district, said about a dozen farmers who've participated in the cover crop program before, including some with large farms, missed the deadline to sign up this year.
But there were changes in the program that some think may also have reduced participation. The state reduced the base payment for cover crops this year by $5 an acre, to $40, and limited how much land each farmer could enroll in the program to a 1,000-acre maximum. Farmers can earn the maximum $85 per acre if they fulfill a variety of conditions, including planting cover crops on fields that had grown corn and that had been fertilized with animal manure. Corn and animal manure are considered especially prone to "leaking" nutrients into waterways, so those are the fields deemed most in need of pollution controls.
Louise Lawrence, chief of resource conservation for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the state reduced the base payment because seed costs declined, and put a cap on how much land each farmer could enroll "because we had less money this year." The state has committed to making $16 million in payments to farmers, based on the acreage signed up, she said.
The amount paid out is likely to be less, though, because typically farmers only get around to planting about two-thirds of the cover crops they sign up for, she noted. Last fall, only about 239,000 acres got planted, well below the 387,000 acres enrolled.