SUDLERSVILLE — — Hans Schmidt's fields were so muddy his van nearly bogged down as he drove across the flat Eastern Shore landscape to where he'd knocked off planting wheat the other night - just ahead of another downpour.
It's been a wet year for farmers, and that could spell trouble for the Chesapeake Bay. Schmidt and other Maryland farmers have been in a race with the weather lately - trying to get the last of their fall crops harvested and their fields replanted in pollution-absorbing "cover crops" before winter sets in.
"Spring was so wet, it was just like this domino effect," Schmidt said last week as he eyed a brown field of ripe soybeans too soaked to harvest. "Everything was delayed."
Unusually rainy weather may be the main reason why farmers have decided to plant fewer acres of cover crops this fall than they did last year, despite the state's offer to pay them up to $85 an acre. According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, about 330,500 acres are enrolled in the state-subsidized program, compared with 387,000 acres signed up last year.
Whatever the cause, it's a setback for state officials, who consider such cover crops crucial to preventing fertilizer that's left in the fields after autumn harvest from washing into nearby streams. Such farm runoff is a leading source of the nutrient pollution that creates a vast oxygen-starved dead zone in the Chesapeake every summer.
Under pressure to re-energize the lagging bay cleanup, state officials have pledged to nearly double the amount of farmland planted in cover crops by 2011 - to 460,000 acres, or roughly half of all croplands in the state. But instead of expanding the greening of fields this fall, the total coverage seems likely to be smaller than last year's.
"That's very disappointing," said Russell Brinsfield, executive director of the University of Maryland's Center for Agro-Ecology and himself a farmer. Reaching the state's goal in the face of such slippage is "going to be a huge challenge," he added.
Scientists consider cover crops to be among the most cost-effective strategies farmers have to keep excess fertilizer from washing off their fields into nearby streams. For that reason, the state pays growers to seed their fields in the fall, with a bonus if they kill the crop back in spring so it recycles some nutrients for the next crop to be planted.
Farmers typically plant grains such as wheat, rye and barley for cover crops, since they can grow through the winter. But some growers like Schmidt also are trying leafy crops such as forage radish, which boasts dandelion-like vegetation and a long white taproot.
Agriculture officials say they're not sure why farmers enrolled fewer acres in the state's cover crop program, though they believe weather had a lot to do with it. Heavy rains early this year delayed spring planting, so that they were busy harvesting wheat this summer during the two-week sign-up window for the state program.
"If you weigh whether 'I'm going to come in and sign up for cover crop' versus trying to get my wheat harvest in, the majority of farmers - and I'm one of them - would say 'I'm going to get my wheat harvest in first,' " said Schmidt, 46, who raises corn, soybeans, barley, wheat, hay, tomatoes, green beans and grapes on 1,800 acres near Sudlersville.
Tony Riggi, manager of the Queen Anne's County soil conservation district, said about a dozen farmers who've participated in the cover crop program before, including some with large farms, missed the deadline to sign up this year.
But there were changes in the program that some think may also have reduced participation. The state reduced the base payment for cover crops this year by $5 an acre, to $40, and limited how much land each farmer could enroll in the program to a 1,000-acre maximum. Farmers can earn the maximum $85 per acre if they fulfill a variety of conditions, including planting cover crops on fields that had grown corn and that had been fertilized with animal manure. Corn and animal manure are considered especially prone to "leaking" nutrients into waterways, so those are the fields deemed most in need of pollution controls.
Louise Lawrence, chief of resource conservation for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the state reduced the base payment because seed costs declined, and put a cap on how much land each farmer could enroll "because we had less money this year." The state has committed to making $16 million in payments to farmers, based on the acreage signed up, she said.
The amount paid out is likely to be less, though, because typically farmers only get around to planting about two-thirds of the cover crops they sign up for, she noted. Last fall, only about 239,000 acres got planted, well below the 387,000 acres enrolled.
There's a gap between how much farmers say they'll plant and what they actually do because of uncertainties like the rainy weather this year, and because of the conditions the state puts on what it will pay for. Cover crops need to be planted early enough in the fall so the plants can grow and soak up nutrients in the soil. This year, with farmers slowed by rain, the state extended the deadline for planting cover crops two weeks until Monday, pushing the envelope on how much time the crops need to get established before winter.
Schmidt had expected to plant cover crops on 1,000 of the 1,800 acres he farms, but by Monday's deadline he only had 900 seeded. The ground was still too soft for him to plant the last 100 acres that he'd planned.
Even though he won't get paid for it, Schmidt said he'd still plant the rye seed sitting in his shed once he has harvested the last of his soybeans. "I'd rather not return it to the dealer," he said, and if cold weather holds off long enough, he might get enough growth to green up the field and absorb leftover nutrients.
State officials, meanwhile, say they intend to take a hard look at how they can get farmers to more than double the amount of pollution-absorbing crops planted next fall.
"It's hard to go from zero to 60," the MDA's Lawrence said.
One way might be to enlist most or all of about 180,000 acres of cover crops planted each fall but not enrolled in the state program. Those crops aren't eligible for payments now because farmers intend to harvest them for sale, rather than leave them in the field, and because they apply fertilizer during the fall planting. Scientist say putting down more fertilizer in the fall undermines the environmental benefit of cover crops, which is to soak up excess nutrients in the soil before winter sets in.
Lawrence said officials hope to convince those farmers they don't need to use any fertilizer in the fall to get good yields on their spring harvest. Among the options under consideration: offering to pay farmers a little extra to skip the fall fertilizer, which would compensate them if the crop is less abundant. But Lawrence said officials are also considering imposing restrictions on fall fertilizer applications.
"We're talking about the whole gamut, and we need to work through that," Lawrence said.
Brinsfield, who oversees research on environmental impacts of farming, said some studies suggest cash cover crops will grow just as tall without additional fertilizer in the fall. But if farmers aren't convinced their harvests won't suffer, he noted, "all hell is going to break loose" if the state tries to tell them they can't fertilize the crops they're raising for sale.
Valerie Connelly, government affairs director for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said she believes weather, not a lack of enthusiasm, was the chief reason farmers didn't participate in the state's cover-crop program as much this year.
"Next year's a completely different year, with different issues," she said. Still, she cautioned that state officials may be unrealistic in aiming for planting cover crops on half of all the croplands in the state, given the vagaries of weather and farm commodity markets.
Getting cover crops on 460,000 acres by 2011 is "probably possible in a perfect year," Connelly said, but added, "I don't know that we've ever had a perfect year. That's the problem of setting numeric goals .. We have to be careful about how we put all our eggs in one basket."
To have a better chance of meeting the state's goal, the farm bureau lobbyist said officials may need to consider boosting payments to farmers to plant cover crops, and easing the restrictions put on them to be eligible for the payments. But she warned the program could go "backwards" if the state tried to require farmers to plant cover crops. "You'd set everybody against the program," she said.
Schmidt says he thinks the state should consider sweetening the payments.
"The margins for farming are tight. If they're going to have more participation, they're going to have to come up with more money," he said. But considering the economy and state budget crisis, he acknowledged, "that's going to be tough."
Brinsfield said he thinks simply boosting payments isn't the solution, even if the money could be found next year.
"Even if you had farmers willing," he said, to plant many more acres, "weather and competition for other chores on the farm is going to make it more difficult. I think in the long run we may need to be a little more strategic about what we fund and how we set our priorities. ... To lay out $12 million to $15 million annually in perpetuity is unrealistic."