(Beyond Pesticides, December 5, 2007)
The state of Maryland, in an effort to stem the extensive pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, has developed a cost-share program that pays farmers to plant winter cover crops, beginning with a pilot program in 1992. Farmers plant a variety of crops, wheat being the most popular, which in turn absorb excess nutrients in the soil and reduce the amount that is washed into the bay. In spring, famers will harvest the cover crops (sometimes with an herbicide) and plant for the regular growing season.
According to a 2005 report by the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), “Excess nutrients and sediments entering the Chesapeake Bay from urban, agricultural, and forested nonpoint sources [NPS] within the Bay region have been shown to cause degradation of both water quality and living resources.” The report continued by acknowledging, “Excess loading of nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay region has been attributed to runoff and potential nitrate leaching from agricultural practices . . . agriculture has been its most frequent cause.”
Cropland in Maryland accounts for 1.7 million acres of 6.3 million total acres in the state. The MDA report states, “As in other agricultural areas nationwide, crop yields are linked to the amount of fertilizer applied to the soil.” So with a surplus of fertilizer applied under this theory, MDA argues, “the use of winter cover crops has been recognized as an efficient and cost effective practice to reduce NPS pollution.”
The current cover crop program is over-enrolled for MDA’s budget, which pays 1,529 farmers as much as $50 per acre to plant in winter. Participation demand has risen 54 percent in the last year, forcing Maryland to look for additional funding to continue the program. The $50 million Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund was passed this fall, but designates the money for he Department of Natural Resources and not the MDA, which cover crop advocates will try to change in the new year. The Environmental Defense, in a recent report, stated, “Farms are the largest and most indispensable part of the solution [to the Bay’s pollution]. We must help farmers, who already are taking steps to help the bay, deliver even greater benefits.”
Of course, part of the solution should be reducing dependence on synthetic fertilizers in the first place, eliminating the need to harvest cover crops with herbicides. State and federal incentives for organic farming would both protect the bay in the short term and the health of Maryland’s farmland in the long term. For more on organic farming, including the proposed amendment to the 2007 Farm Bill, click here.