About a mile from his office at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, Thomas Devine has reduced nine years of research to a 3-foot-wide strip of earth that runs about half the length of a football field.
There, between two rows of rye, Devine grows his peculiar variety of a crop with a monster-like name: hairy vetch. And he has big plans for it - such as revolutionizing world agriculture.
"We're hoping to get a good set of seeds here. All the conditions seem to be right for it," said Devine, plucking a few of the plants from the rich brown soil.
Devine, a researcher at the agency's Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab, hopes farmers will replace much of their synthetically produced fertilizers, chicken pellets and cow manure with his variety of vetch, which he calls Purple Bounty. Some who have tried it think it has potential.
"It could be really helpful, in that it will give us more flexibility," said Nick Maravell, who raises corn, barley, soybeans and hay on a 170-acre organic farm in Frederick and Montgomery counties.
Crop rotation - a practice that goes back to Roman times - works in part because plants such as wheat, oats and barley are hardier when grown in soil where other plants have left nitrogen. Hairy vetch is a part of that cycle, using bacteria that pull nitrogen from the air for the plant's own use during its winter and spring growing season. When the plant dies in May or June, the nitrogen stays in the soil, enriching it for crops such as corn, tomatoes and pumpkins.
After nine years of cross-breeding, Devine said he has developed seeds with the right characteristics for a superior vetch: It will survive as far north as upstate New York and flower at a more opportune time than current varieties. Devine also designed it to be plowed into the soil to make for more abundant harvests of corn, tomatoes and pumpkins.
Ideally, farmers will plant Purple Bounty, like other varieties of cover crops, in the fall. They'll harvest the stalks when the plant flowers in May and let it lie in the fields, becoming a mat of dead material that prevents erosion. The ground cover can also cut back on weed growth, hold needed moisture in the soil and reduce the need for fertilizer.
Hairy vetch has long been a favorite among organic farmers, but the improved variety could increase the market for it among conventional farmers and enhance its reputation among some organic growers.
"Conventional farming doesn't have its eyes open to this at this point, but it probably will," said Kevin Erb, an agricultural agent with the University of Wisconsin Extension Service.
Erb sees Purple Bounty as a way to help Wisconsin farmers raise corn. He estimated that farmers lose about a bushel per acre of corn for every day in May they delay planting. The variety would allow for earlier plantings of corn and other crops.
The price of nitrogen-based fertilizers also has almost tripled in the past three years, making vetch a more appealing option for conventional farmers, he said. Nitrogen fertilizers cost about 50 cents per pound, so using vetch on a crop like corn would save about $25 per acre, Erb said.
Some organic farmers, in Maryland and elsewhere, have been growing hairy vetch for at least 20 years now. "It can be used in a bunch of different ways," said Jack Gurley, who plants vetch to enrich the soil for some of the tomatoes he raises on his 5-acre organic farm in Sparks.
But current varieties have a hard time surviving winters north of Maryland, and in many areas they flower too early to be useful, Devine said.
Vetch is at its best as a soil treatment after it flowers, so late flowering can delay spring planting and cut back on harvests, experts say.
"The earlier you can plant corn, the longer the growing season and the higher the yield," Maravell said. "Having the vetch flower earlier would help."
To be certified as organic by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, a farm may not use commercially available, synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers, according to a spokeswoman. There were 102 state-certified organic crop producers and handlers in Maryland last year, up from 84 in 2003, she said.
To come up with his variety of vetch, Devine ordered seeds from the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, a national repository. From the plants they produced, he selected the hardiest samples that grew over nine winters at an ARS tract in Keedysville, in the Maryland foothills south of Hagerstown.
"That way, you're selecting under natural circumstances and getting something that's survived the vicissitudes of winter," Devine said.
The plants also were culled for their ability to flower two weeks earlier than current varieties.
The first seeds will be released to a limited market this year and will be more available next year. Backers say the market can only increase.
"I think more people are starting to use it, and with the cost of fertilizer going up, you're going to see more and more people use it," Gurley said.