CHAMP — Eric Bedsworth’s day of reckoning arrived a year ago.
His soybean field got such a salty soaking from last fall’s tidal waters that he abandoned it mid-harvest. This season, the land sprouts only weeds. Unless researchers create a salt-tolerant crop to his liking, Bedsworth likely never will plant this soggy field again.
“I hate to see the land go out of production. But I’ve lost so much money down there,” said Bedsworth, a third-generation farmer in Somerset County.
His is a fate farmers increasingly confront amid rising seas and punishing storms, according to a study by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. Thousands of acres have been abandoned on the Eastern Shore. The long-farmed land was “the breadbasket of the Revolution.”
With seas rising, farmers along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts increasingly suffer from one of the initial impacts of climate change: saltwater intrusion. The plague of salt is arriving not just from storms and tide but also underground, where it can migrate undetected until crops shrivel. Often, the damage is compounded by farming methods ingrained over the years.
In North Carolina, rich coastal lands drained for farming are going barren as saltwater soaks into the earth and advances inland through drainage ditches dug to carry water away.
Maryland soils that nourished corn, soybeans and vegetables on the Eastern Shore are overrun with phragmites, jungles of sharp-leaved invasive plants 10 feet or more in height.
Soil testing showed levels of salinity too high for common crops. A dozen samples on field locations showed salinity levels ranging from 1.3 parts per thousand (ppt) to 3.6 ppt — enough to stop or stunt the growth of traditional crops.
Fifty miles north in Dorchester County, samples from a cornfield of shriveled stalks showed salinity ranging from 3.7 to 4.5 ppt. Corn seedlings typically don’t withstand more than 0.9 ppt.
“I don’t think even weeds will grow in some places,” remarked the property owner, Richard Abend.
Change has arrived more swiftly in the Mid-Atlantic than along other coasts because the land is sinking, a geologic process begun millennia ago after advancing ice raised its level. It continues to subside, a factor in seas rising from 3 to 6 millimeters a year, depending on location, hastening research to help farmers and landowners adapt.
In September, the National Science Foundation awarded a $4.3 million grant to University of Maryland agroecologist Kate Tully and colleagues in Delaware and Virginia to study the transforming effects on the Delmarva Peninsula.
In Maryland, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found a drop in farm acreage of 9% in between 2012 and 2017 in Somerset County.
Somerset’s loss of uplands over eight years was nearing 2.4 square miles, most of it farmlands, according to newly published research by wetlands ecologist Keryn Gedan of George Washington University, and Rebecca Epanchin-Niell of Resources for the Future, members of Tully’s research team.
Tully and colleagues are seeking crops that can tolerate salt even as she and other researchers unravel the complex changes in soil chemistry as salt creeps farther inland. The salty and wet conditions can trigger release of phosphorus and nitrogen stored in fields from farming, polluting the surface and groundwater.
Tully’s team monitored Somerset County’s waters for three years before publishing research documenting that nutrients that have accumulated on farm fields “are moving downstream through connected agricultural ditches and tidal creeks.”
That nutrient exodus could mean more trouble for Chesapeake Bay, where dead zones of oxygen-starved waters — caused in part by fertilizers — nearly tripled last year.
Tully has experimented with crops in southern Maryland that have promising markets. Sorghum might be used to feed chickens in Eastern Shore broiler houses. Switchgrass has potential as poultry bedding. Barley, which she said fared “pretty good” in her test plantings, could be sold to regional microbreweries.
Quinoa, a super grain and technically a fruit, is among the most salt-tolerant food crops. But farmers have shown little interest.
At Cape May Plant Materials Center, a U.S. Department of Agriculture installation in southern New Jersey working on problems in nine states, a dozen of the 16 crops being tested aim at adaptation to salty soils, according to Christopher Miller, installation manager.
Tully has tested soybeans bred to withstand salt but reports little success, not good news along Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, where farmers in three counties planted about 85,000 acres of soybeans last year.
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is signing up farmers willing to turn over salt-scarred land for restoring marshlands and other conservation purposes.
In Maryland this spring, The Nature Conservancy said it had agreements to put 130 acres into permanent preservation. From aerial photos, the conservancy identified dozens of parcels in Maryland and Virginia where salt buildup was so heavy along farmland ditches that they looked like roads from the air.
Projects in Virginia show promise. Near Bloxom, a town along the Chesapeake Bay, the USDA conservation service has begun an elaborate wetlands restoration project on 33 acres surrounding a home built in 1730.
The agency planted millions of seeds for plants such as creeping spikerush and bearded beggarticks.
Dr. Charles Wilder, who owns the land, is keenly aware of the climate crisis and signed up for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program because he wanted to put his acreage to good use.
“I think we’re running out of time, I really do,” said Wilder, 67.
Getting to the point where landowners agree to subscribe to programs and easements — the legal right to use part of their land — is challenging. They might see more value in priming the land for duck hunting, which would bring in some income.
“Most landowners really don’t want to change things unless they can see a clear benefit for themselves,” said Jim McGowan, The Nature Conservancy’s regional land protection manager in Virginia. “They don’t want to see land taken out of production unless it’s gotten to the point where it’s so wet that it’s not worth their time.”
Read more Capital News Service stories about the saltwater invasion at cnsmaryland.org.