Baltimore Sun

Maryland farmers set cover crop record - with an asterisk

Maryland farmers planted a record amount of pollution-absorbing cover crops last fall, state officials announced this week, sowing nearly 400,000 acres with rye, barley, wheat and other grains.  While it's indisputably good news for the Chesapeake Bay that so many fields got covered, official ballyhoo about the planting surpassing the state's bay cleanup goal needs needs a little perspective.

The state, it must be remembered, reduced its target for cover crop plantings last year after a disappointing response by farmers in fall 2009 to efforts by the state to get them to sign up for the government-funded, voluntary pollution control effort.


Runoff from farm fields is one of the major sources of the nitrogen and phosphorus that spur algae blooms every spring in the bay, forming a vast "dead zone" on the bottom where fish and crabs can't enough oxygen from the water to survive long.   Research has found that planting "cover crops" in the fall after harvesting corn and soybeans is one of the most effective things farmers can do to keep excess fertilizer from washing off their fields.  So the state offers to pay farmers to put in crops that will overwinter, and consume those leftover plant nutrients in the soil.

Officials originally had set their sights on getting 460,000 acres covered by this fall, nearly double what farmers had put in in 2008 and roughly half of all the state's croplands.  But plantings actually declined in the fall of 2009, a drop attributed mainly to rainy weather keeping farmers out of their fields until it was too late to get cover crops in the ground before winter.


As a result, state officials revised their cover crop goal downward to 325,000 acres, and proposed other pollution control measures in their bay cleanup plan to make up for it.

Meanwhile, though, they also redoubled efforts to encourage farmers to plant the crops, sweetening the payments farmers could get to a maximum of $95 an acre (or even $106 an acre under a similar federal program) and relaxing limits on how many acres could be eligible for government funding.  The weather helped this time, officials say, as it stayed dry enough for farmers to harvest their summer crops and get the cover crops in the ground early enough so that they could grow some and soak up excess nutrients before going dormant for winter.

It worked like a charm, though at a price.  As Pamela Wood reported in the Annapolis Capital, agriculture officials project the program could cost up to $22 million this year.  The final tally depends on whether farmers elect to harvest their cover crops and sell them, or leave them in the ground to provide nutrients for a fresh crop such as corn or soybeans planted over them.   Farmers get paid less - $25 an acre - if they harvest the cover crops.

The money to pay farmers comes from federal and state governments, with part of the funds coming from the $30 annual "flush fee" every Maryland homeowner pays via utility or real estate tax bills.    Officials say it's money well spent, as few other pollution control measures are as cost-effective at keeping nitrogen or phosphorus out of streams, rivers and the bay.  Even so, it's not clear, given the state's looming $1.3 billion budget deficit, whether lawmakers will vote to provide as much money for this effort in the coming year.

Nonetheless, perhaps heartened by the recent response, the state has upped its target slightly for cover crop plantings in its latest bay cleanup plan - to 355,000 acres, still well short of the original goal.

"For the upcoming year, we plan a similar program and approach," Royden N. Powell III, assistant secretary of agriculture, said in an email.  "Obviously the weather is the critical factor out of our control."

But in a departure from the voluntary nature of this effort, the state is moving to adopt a regulation barring farmers from applying fertilizer in the fall, whether they've signed up to to get paid for planting cover crops or not.

"Why do it? Because the science says it's the right thing to do," Powell wrote.   A Maryland researcher has shown, he explained, that crops planted in fall don't really grow any bigger or faster if fertilized then, as long as there's still some nitrogen left over in the soil after the prior harvest.


It's too early to say how much more pollution a fall fertilizing ban might prevent, Powell said.  It may simply turn out to be a hedge against bad weather, or against a decline in the money available to pay farmers in an uncertain budget year.  Or it could conceivably put the state over its original goal - which could take that asterisk off an otherwise notable achievement.

(Barley growing on farm near Hillsboro, 2008, Baltimore Sun photo by Glenn Fawcett)