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Farmers vie for limited state funding to plant cover crops

The Baltimore Sun

The race is on for Maryland farmers to obtain state money to help pay for the planting of cover crops.

The state Department of Agriculture began taking farmers' applications for funding last week and, if recent history is any indication, the money will run out before the June 29 registration deadline.

Cover crops are recognized as one of the most cost-effective and environmentally sound ways to control soil erosion and nutrient runoff from farmland into the Chesapeake Bay.

The crops are grains - usually wheat, barley and rye - that farmers plant after harvesting corn and soybeans. The crops grow during the winter and help absorb excess nutrients left behind from the fertilizer and manure that farmers use during the summer growing season.

"It's a popular program with farmers," said Louise Lawrence, chief of the Office of Resource Conservation at the state Agriculture Department.

However, the money that is available this year - $8.3 million - falls far short of the state's goal for the program, Lawrence said.

"We have said in the past that we need $24 million a year to reach the goal of planting 750,000 acres of farmland in cover crops," she said.

Lawrence expects the money, which will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, to go fast. Farmers still on the registration list after the money is gone will be placed on a wait list and paid only if more funds become available.

About 1,500 farmers applied for money last year to plant about 450,000 acres, Lawrence said. But because of budget limitations, only about 230,000 acres of cover crops were planted last year.

"That far exceeded our expectations," she said. "And I would guess that it will be a similar situation this year."

Farmers planting cover crops can receive up to $50 an acre, which is intended to cover the full costs. Not everyone will receive the full amount.

There are three cover crop program options available this year:

Traditional. Under this plan, earlier planters will get more money, with farmers who plant before Oct. 1 receiving $50 per acre and those who get the crop in by Oct. 15 or later getting $40 per acre.

Crops planted before October are much more effective at absorbing nutrients, Lawrence said.

In this program, farmers are limited to a maximum of 700 acres and cannot plant crops that can be harvested. However, the crops can be used for grazing or chopped for livestock forage.

The acreage restriction per farm is designed to prevent big farms from using up all the money and the smaller farms being left out.

Commodity cover crop. This is for farmers who want to harvest the cover crop. It is limited to a maximum of 250 acres per farm and eligible farmers must plant by Nov. 5 to receive $20 per acre. Restrictions include a ban on the use of fertilizers until after March 1.

Hull-less barley. This program is made available by the Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board, which pays farmers $35 per acre if they plant hull-less barley. The program is limited to a maximum of 8,000 acres, according to Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.

The association has been promoting hull-less barley as the grain to be used in a proposed ethanol production plant it wants to construct in Maryland.

Because farmers would not be allowed to use fertilizer on the crop in the fall, the payment is made to compensate them for the yield loss that may occur, Hoot said. The program is funded by a $750,000 grant from the USDA.

Until the ethanol plant is up and running, Perdue Farms, the Salisbury-based poultry company, has agreed to purchase the hull-less barley at regular barley prices, Hoot said.

Farmers seeking to participate in cover crop programs should contact a local soil conservation district office.

If Maryland's two U.S. senators get their way, there could be more money available for farm conservation programs in the future. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin have introduced legislation that would add $200 million a year in conservation funding to farmers in the bay region.

The funding would be used for a variety of conservation efforts that officials at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation say could reduce nitrogen pollution in the bay by 65 million pounds a year.

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