State Encourages Cover Crops to Cut Erosion, Pollution, But Funds Lag

By KENNETH R. FLETCHER, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS (November 25, 2007) - Charles County farmer Chip Bowling harvested his corn crop back in September and immediately planted the same fields with wheat and rye.

But instead of harvesting those crops in spring, he will spray them with herbicide and plant the fields over with corn or soybeans.

Bowling is part of the state's cover crop cost-share program, where farmers are paid to plant fields in the fall to keep them growing during the winter months, an effort that curbs farm pollution.

"We are planting as much cover crop as we possibly can," Bowling said, who planted about 450 of his 1,400 acres through the state's program this year. "It helps with soil erosion and absorbs the nutrients the crops don't use."

The program is in such demand that the Maryland Department of Agriculture has more farmers than funds: Of the 1,782 farmers who applied this year, 1,529 were approved for funding of as much as $50 per acre, up from the 965 who applied in fiscal 2006. Those farmers are expected to plant about a third of the state's cropland in cover crops, said Louise Lawrence of the department.

Cover crops soak up nutrients left over in the soil from the summer's crop and keep rain from washing soil off of bare fields. Though some, like winter wheat, can be harvested and sold, many are killed or plowed under in the spring when next year's crop is planted.

Experts say controlling farm pollution is the cheapest and most effective way to reduce bay pollution. Agriculture contributes about 62 percent of sediment, 45 percent of phosphorus and 44 percent of nitrogen that ends up in the bay, according to federal data.

By 2005, agriculture had met close to half of its pollution reduction goals for 2010 spelled out in the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, a pledge between federal and state governments. That far surpasses controls on more costly urban and suburban runoff that, with a growing population, are actually contributing more pollution than before.

A proposal that could have increased funding for cover crops was included in a proposed $50 million Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund considered in this month's special legislative session.

The bill passed, but the final version mentions only general bay cleanup goals and not cover crops specifically. It dedicates the money to the Department of Natural Resources, instead of splitting it with the Agriculture Department and other agencies.

Supporters of the original bill have said they expect to come back in January to try to specify how the trust fund money will be allocated.

If the money does end up going to cover crops, that could attract more farmers to voluntarily plant those crops, said Lawrence, chair of the Agriculture Department's nutrient management committee.

Money from the Chesapeake fund could also aid other farm programs that control pollution. Some farmers are already planting buffers of greenery along waterways, storing manure in holding containers to prevent it from contaminating the bay and more.

But Gerald Winegrad, a former state senator and longtime Chesapeake advocate, said that voluntary programs are not enough. He instead supports making cover crops mandatory and imposing regulations to cap farm nutrient pollution.

"When you only use carrots and you don't use sticks you have a failing effort," he said. "The bay is not improving and agriculture is nowhere near meeting their requirements."

But Lawrence said that just because programs are mandated does not mean farmers could afford it. In a year like this with a severe drought, the extra expense and time required "could be the straw that broke the camel's back," she said.

Lawrence said the Agriculture Department is instead planning on targeting funding to areas that have the most impact on the bay using the state's new BayStat program.

Bowling said that for decades his family has been planting cover crops on their former tobacco farm in Newburg near the Potomac River, which was common practice on Southern Maryland tobacco farms.

"I think anybody that deals with farmland or agriculture is concerned about what happens with the Chesapeake," Bowling said.

But he added that planting cover crops can be costly and take up time during the busy fall harvest season, with little economic benefit to the farmer. That's why state support is crucial, he said.

"If we could get more funding from the state, you would see a lot more cover crops planted," he said.

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