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Bay pollution projections called unfair to Maryland grain farmers

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland grain farmers are countering recent concerns that growing more corn -- a shift encouraged by President Bush as part of the solution to the nation's dependence on foreign oil -- could have detrimental effects on the Chesapeake Bay.

The conclusions in two recent reports by environmental groups that more corn means more harmful nutrients in the bay from increased use of fertilizer have touched a nerve in the Maryland farm community.

"The reports suggest that farmers don't care about protecting the bay," said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association. "That's not the case."

Said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson, "There is no question in my mind about it -- farmers are being unjustly criticized."

Some in the agriculture community take it further and say that planting more corn could be good for the bay by keeping farms viable and preventing farmland from being sold for development.

The debate centers on predictions of big boosts in corn plantings to meet the increased demand for ethanol, a gasoline extender usually made from corn. The discussion dates to Bush signing the 2005 energy bill that required oil refiners to use 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2012. The objective is to reduce the use of gasoline by 20 percent over the next decade.

In this year's State of the Union address, the president upped the ante and called for the production of 35 billion gallons of alternative fuel by 2017.

Because of increased demand for corn, the price doubled to $4 a bushel this year before dropping back to about $3.50. Maryland farmers planted 540,000 acres of corn this year, 45,000 acres more than last year.

In July, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation predicted that farmers in the six-state bay watershed would continue the corn frenzy, projecting that planting could rise by 500,000 to 1 million acres over the next few years. The foundation went on to warn that such an increase could add 16 million pounds of nitrogen and 1.6 million pounds of phosphorus to the bay and its tributaries annually.

A second report, released this month by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, put the corn planting projection at an additional 300,000 acres. The commission, a government agency that advises states on bay policy, said that would add 5 million pounds of nitrogen to the estuary each year.

Before getting to the idea of more nutrients in the bay, many in the Maryland farm community questioned the projections of future plantings in the reports.

"It's absurd to think that farmers are going to plant another million acres of corn," Hoot said.

Others argue that it is bad business for farmers to go headlong into an all-corn mode of operation.

"Just like a stock market investor, farmers diversify crops to protect their investments, as was well demonstrated with this summer's drought," said Chip Bowling, owner of a grain farm near Newburg in Charles County.

What is overlooked is the appeal of soybeans, farmers said. The crop usually fares better in a drought than corn. Because they are harvested later than corn, soybeans can benefit from September rains and bounce back from summer drought damage. With soybean prices on the rise, Richardson expects to see more soybeans and less corn planted as soon as next year.

Hoot and Richardson also expressed objection to reports of environmentalists' fears that higher prices would prompt farmers to plant more corn instead of nitrogen-absorbing cover crops. Typically wheat, barley or rye, cover crops are considered one of the most cost-effective and environmentally sound ways to control soil erosion and nutrient runoff from farmland into the bay.

The crops, planted after farmers harvest corn and soybeans, grow during winter and absorb excess nutrients left from the fertilizer and manure used during the summer growing season.

On the topic of fertilizer, Richardson said it is unrealistic to think that farmers would pour excess fertilizer on their fields in hope of growing a bigger corn crop for a simple reason -- it costs too much. Fertilizer costs $500 a ton, the secretary said, almost twice a much as only a few years ago.

"It doesn't work that way," he said. "They can't afford to use too much."

Bowling noted a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that found that growers use less nitrogen today to produce 50 percent more corn than they grew in 1980.

Richardson pointed out that 95 percent of the farms in Maryland, representing 97 percent of the farm acreage, have nutrient-management plans designed to prevent pollution of the bay.

"Farmers pay $3,000 to $10,000 for such plans," he said. "To suggest they don't follow them does not make sense."

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