View from the Farm:
Putting Best Management to Practice

TALL STANDS OF CORN arc high along the sides of the road, like walls of a slot canyon. Our car navigates the narrow passage until we reach a grassy clearing. Here Buck Morris waits alongside his black pickup truck, near the property line where his farm extends toward busy Route 213.

Overgrown grass reaches past Morris's knees. His big frame seems diminished in the high grass — grass that he planted but is not allowed to mow for another month or more. This grassy patch, a so-called vegetated buffer, still has its work to do, intercepting nutrient-laden runoff from Morris's fields. After a rain, the buffer slows the flow before it reaches the watery ditch in the forested area of his property, where pools of water become headwaters of the Corsica River.

A narrow grass channel extends all the way from the edge of Route 213 down toward the grassy field. This is a grass waterway, Morris explains, designed to stop road runoff that could erode the ditch and carve a channel that could carry nutrients to the headwater stream.

Morris says that he's put best management practices, like these grass buffers and waterways, on nearly all of the properties that he works, which tallies to ten, not including his own. And of course cover crops.

A road wends through the Morris farm by Erica Goldman
George Morris by Erica Goldman
Watery ditch with cover crops by Erica Goldman
A narrow road wends through the farm of George "Buck" Morris (top right). Morris plants grass waterways, buffers, and cover crops to keep nutrient-laden runoff out of this watery ditch (bottom right) on the edge of his property, which drains into the headwaters of the Corsica River. Credit: Erica Goldman

Cover crops, like waterways and grass buffers, work in a straightforward manner to help take up excess nutrients from the soil during the winter. But the questions raised by the economics of cover crops suggest that it's not so simple. Can farmers make money planting cover crops? Without significant federal and state subsidies, can planting cover crops provide farmers with a reliable source of financial profit?

Morris has been planting cover crops for more than 10 years, well before the beginning of the Corsica River restoration effort. Cover crops "mellow" the soil, he says, preventing it from packing down. "If we can do something to better our soil, we're going to do it, especially if it doesn't cost us a lot of money out of pocket," he says. "Plus, we're helping the environment too. It's a win-win situation for everyone."

Farmers in the Corsica watershed, according to Morris, think favorably of the cover crop program and other best management practices recommended by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. And he should know. He serves as chair of the board of Queen Anne's Soil Conservation District, running monthly meetings and contacting local representatives on particular issues.

"They [MDA] are listening to us when we make recommendations. This year, they changed the signup dates. They extended the window so that [cover crop signup] doesn't coincide with the wheat harvest." Farmers are too busy at harvest time to get to the office to register their acreage enrollment.

Most farmers that Morris knows plant some sort of cover crop over the winter. That can be either a traditional cover crop or a commodity cover crop, a crop harvested for sale. To plant traditional cover crops farmers rely on incentives from the state — up to $95 per acre. They must plant these crops — commonly wheat, rye, or barley — by early November, after corn. The crops must remain unfertilized through the winter, so they can take up excess nutrients and stabilize the soil during the vulnerable period for runoff and seepage. After March 15, farmers can destroy them or cut them for livestock forage, but rules say that they cannot harvest them.

Commodity cover crops, which are sold in open market, bring farmers more modest incentives of $25-35 per acre but provide the chance to bring in more money. Under the commodity cover crop program, farmers still cannot apply fertilizer in the fall. But after March 1, they can add fertilizer to bring the crop to market size.

Why would the state offer incentives for winter commodity crops? According to MDA's Dave Mister, the payments help offset a potential loss in yield that farmers might see by not fertilizing in the fall. But the state's interest is to entice farmers to plant cover crops — not to bolster the income of farmers. "That was never the intent," says Mister. "The cost share for the cover crop program is to cover the cost of planting for nutrient reduction."

Though it varies year-to-year, the decrease in yield from using no fertilizer in the fall is often quite small, says Morris. "This past year [2009-2010], I don't think I lost any yield," says Morris. "They [MDA] are compensating enough to make up the difference."

Furthermore, if farmers don't plant a commodity cover crop, like wheat, under MDA's program, Morris explains, they'd probably plant the same crop anyway, but they'd put fertilizer on it to ensure that they could grow as much as possible.

As with any commodity, selling cover crops depends on the market.

Right now, wheat is the only small grain cover crop with any kind of market on the Eastern Shore, says Mister, and it's not a big one. Perdue buys wheat as filler for chicken feed, but compared with the demand for corn, the demand for wheat is quite low.

What about the market for other small grain cover crops? For a while, hull-less barley was being touted for biofuel production, Mister explains. "We thought that we were going to have biofuels here in Baltimore," he says. "But that never materialized."

Maybe not in Baltimore, but at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, in Hopewell, Virginia, the first biofuel plant in the Bay watershed broke ground in May 2009. Osage BioEnergy has nearly completed construction of this barley-based biofuel plant, and it will soon be operational. With target ethanol production set at 65 million gallons per year, the company anticipates processing 30 million bushels of barley annually and generating $100 million in agricultural economic opportunity for local farmers and agriculture-related business.

A market for a small grain like barley could make the planting of cover crops a self-sustaining and profitable enterprise for farmers. Until then, cover crops will depend on government incentives.

Since agriculture accounts for the Bay watershed's largest load of nutrients, improving the health of the Chesapeake will depend on planting cover crops over many acres, year after year. This won't be easy, Morris says. "People are doing almost all they can do now."

For now, funding for the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program remains strong. This year, the state has made $15 million available to Maryland farmers. And for the 2010-2011 planting season, in the Corsica watershed and statewide, MDA reports record enrollment for the program. But how long can the state afford to pay for cover crops? What if subsidies for cover crops should dwindle?

Commodity crops like barley for biofuels might shift the cost from the state to private markets. Could we then pay for cover crops through our energy bills? Intriguing thought. For now, according to Mister and others, the immediate goal is to keep more nutrients out of the Bay. The rest may be up to the bigger forces of capitalism.

vol. 9, no. 3
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