VIENNA, Md. (WJZ)—It’s become Maryland’s most successful sponge. Every winter, cover crops soak up nutrients harmful to the Bay.
Alex DeMetrick reports those crops are now spreading to hundreds of thousands of acres.
On Eastern Shore farms, crops are rapidly growing toward harvest. But it’s what gets planted next that brought Governor Martin O’Malley there.
Cover crops are plants like barley, rye and wheat. They aren’t important so much for what they produce, as for what they use up.
Fertilizer and manure not absorbed by summer crops is soaked up by cover cops during winter, keeping it from running off into streams and the bay, where it helps create dead zones.
“We try to put it on all of the acres where we spray chicken manure to use up any of that might be left over,” said Bill Malkus, farmer.
Acreage is what brought the governor to announce, “550,000 acres of cover crops for this winter—a new record for Maryland and breaking last year’s record,” O’Malley said.
While cover crops help the bay, they do little to help the farmers’ bottom line.
“This is something that without some incentive we really on a year-to-year short-term basis couldn’t afford to do,” said Joe Layton, farmer.
“We pay farmers to plant a cover crop after they harvest their crops,” said Buddy Hance, Md. Department of Agriculture secretary.
That money goes for seed and aircraft to spread it because it must be laid in fields already crowded with crops.
“It uses up most of that state money,” Malkus said. “It’s not a money-making thing. That’s for sure.”
But it is something still important to farmers.
“We as farmers have always been very proud of our resources,” Layton said.
Right down to the roots and the earth they grow in.
When it began a decade ago, the state spent $1.5 million on the cover crop program. It is currently spending $20 million to reduce runoff into the bay.