Can what’s good for the Chesapeake reap benefits for farms?
Kent County, MD, farmer thinks cover crops not only make his operation greener, but save him some ‘green’
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If Trey Hill ever gets bored managing more than 10,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and a range of cover crops, he can cue up footage of the farm’s resident ospreys on his MacBook Pro.
Hill did just that as he entered his sparsely decorated office during a recent visit, more proud of the birds’ presence than of the million-dollar machinery just outside. The webcam provides real-time views of the nest’s newest hatchling against a familiar backdrop: the Chester River and Chesapeake Bay, which frame the farm Hill’s family has been running on Maryland’s Eastern Neck since the early 1900s.
The scene is a welcome reminder for Hill that the mostly leased acreage his family farms in Maryland’s Kent, Cecil and Talbot counties is close to the water’s edge. Considering the impact of growing corn, soybeans and wheat on water quality is part of running a business in this part of the world, but Hill has taken it a step further.
“I consider myself an environmentalist,” he said, his raspy voice lowering into a matter-of-fact cadence. “Even though a lot of people consider that hypocritical — to be a conventional farmer and an environmentalist — I don’t.”
Beyond mere compliance with water quality regulations, Hill is working with scientists to better understand the impact of one of the most widely applied environmental best management practices on both his and the Bay’s bottom lines — planting cover crops in the fall after his main cash crops have been harvested.
Hill is a different kind of farmer. Though the fourth generation of his family to work the land, he is 41 years old — nearly a generation younger than the average 59-year-old grower in Maryland. He serves on the board of one watershed advocacy group, the Sassafras River Association, and is active in another. He attends more environmental meetings than farming ones, he said, because “you learn more outside your comfort zone than within it.” He was honored at the White House last year for his “sustainable and climate-smart agriculture” as one of 11 Champions of Change.
In 2012, the farm set aside more than 3 acres for solar panels that meet the energy needs of the farm and five houses. Hill lives in one of those houses with his wife and two children, ages 6 and 9, and his parents and other farm staff live in the others. Of the land he owns or manages with his father, Herman Hill, Jr., 4.5 percent has been set aside for forested buffer strips to help filter runoff before it reaches waterways.
Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Hill’s early adoption of practices that benefit water quality makes him a role model for others in his field.
“That kind of commitment by farmers across the watershed would ensure the health of our agricultural industry, as well as our local rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay,” she said.
Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, said Hill’s ability to fit in with the agricultural and environmental communities puts him in a small group of farmers, as Bay discussions have all too often pitted the two against one another.
“Trey’s busy. He’s got a lot of land to work, and the fact that he takes time to look at the environmental side is to his credit,” she said.
But Hill still skews toward the industry standard on other agricultural practices on which the scientific jury, one could argue, is still hung. He plants almost entirely genetically modified corn and soybeans, which are engineered to withstand applications of weed-killing glyphosate. He uses chemical fertilizer as well as chicken litter, depending on the circumstances, though litter has become costlier and harder to find in recent months. (Hill said he has documented low phosphorous levels on most of his fields and, if he does apply litter, it is increasingly into still-growing green cover rather than barren soils.)
Still, his crops head to the same markets as everyone else’s commodities: the corn and soybeans feed chickens in confined animal feeding operations, and the wheat heads to large-scale mills and bakeries. “What I do is not a local food thing,” Hill said, although he does lease 15 acres to a small-scale produce farm that sells boxes of fruits and vegetables to nearby residents.
Hill hasn’t deserted his brand of large-scale agriculture, despite the environmental issues associated with it. Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I don’t think the system is broken,” Hill said. “People say, ‘We shouldn’t grow corn in a monoculture.’ But, by the same token, it’s the most efficient use of our land that we have in terms of getting calories and protein to people…I’m saying, let’s take what we’re doing and make it better.”
Hill contended that it’s in his interest as much as anyone’s to keep every bit of the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium he applies to his fields to feed his crops, rather than let any wash or seep off the farm to become water pollutants.
Ray Weil, a professor of environmental science and technology at the University of Maryland, said he would use the word “conventional” carefully when describing Hill’s farming methods. Sure, he said, Hill’s farm is large-scale, but this farmer is not thinking about what he’s doing in a conventional way.
“He is concerned about the environment, and he’s quite aware of living on the Bay itself,” Weil said of Hill, who’s letting the researcher conduct experiments in some of his fields. Weil noted that “he’s taken cover cropping to the next step, which is something only a small percentage of leading farmers are doing.”
Hill and Weil first met when they both spoke during a panel discussion at an environmental meeting. Both want to learn more about the cover crops that are so widely used in Maryland and on Hill’s farm, thanks to a popular state incentive program.
Maryland paid farmers $24 million last year to get them to plant a record 475,560 acres in cold-hardy cereal grains such as wheat, rye and barley, according to Julie Oberg, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. They’re planted in the fall, after the harvest is in, and left through the winter.
According to the MDA, cover crops “recycle unused plant nutrients remaining in the soil from the previous summer crop and protect fields against wind and water erosion.” They’re not a new idea; they were widely planted as early as the 1860s to help soils recover from the monoculture of tobacco farming.
Agricultural research since the 1920s has pointed to myriad benefits of cover cropping, Weil said. Besides controlling erosion, it can add organic matter, prevent pests and reduce soil compaction. But, the UM scientist said, “most farmers didn’t use it until it was subsidized.”
The practice fell out of favor for several decades, as farmers left their stubbly corn fields fallow during the winter, then replaced any lost nutrients with a fresh dose of relatively cheap fertilizer for the spring planting. But amid growing attention focused on agriculture’s role in the Bay’s water quality problems, cover crops have been incorporated with new fervor in the last two decades. They’re widely considered the most effective means of preventing nutrient runoff or seepage from farm fields.
Maryland agriculture officials estimate that the cover crops farmers were paid to plant prevented more than 2.8 million pounds of nitrogen and 95,000 pounds of phosphorous from entering waterways last year.
Maryland farmers planted cover crops on one-third of all the state’s croplands last year, state officials said, and the goal is to get 43.5 percent of the fields covered by 2025, the deadline for Bay restoration efforts. Other states appear far less devoted to the practice, though, according to the latest numbers reported to the EPA’s Bay Program office.
Virginia reported planting 83,557 acres, or about 11 percent of its overall croplands in 2015, while Pennsylvania reported 75,042 acres, just 5 percent of the state’s eligible fields. Kelly Shenk, the EPA’s agricultural adviser with the Bay Program, said those figures might not account for all cover crop acres, because those that are planted without government payments are harder to track.
One big reason for the popularity of cover crops in Maryland is the state’s willingness to pay farmers up to $90 per acre to plant them. But state officials stress that isn’t the only reason farmers should embrace the practice. Research shows it can reap benefits for a field’s soil health and for cash crop yields.
For Hill, planting cereal grains after corn or soybeans breaks up the monotony of monoculture by adding plant diversity, absorbing excess nitrogen left in the fields and keeping the soil from washing or blowing away. That’s why his farm has been planting fall cover for nearly 20 years.
But he thinks at least some cover crops could be doing more than reducing pollution. By planting rye, radish and clover, for which there’s no real commercial market, he said that he suspects it could be boosting his farm’s productivity, especially if the right mix is deployed at the right time.
“I was antagonistic about cover crops,” Hill said of his initial attitude toward the government program a couple of decades ago during a panel discussion at the Choose Clean Water Coalition conference in June. “Now, I’ve learned I’m making money on cover crops. I think they’re really benefitting us, and we’re starting to see soil health.”
That’s why Hill started taking cover crops further. While most farmers keep them in the ground only as long as they must to receive the state credit, Hill has been milking them for even more biological benefits.
One season six years ago, his team of six full-time operators didn’t quite get around to spraying a few fields to kill the cover crops that had been growing all winter. So, unlike every other year, they planted the corn seed into still-growing cover.
They initially feared the seed drills would get hung up on knee-high cover crops, but Hill said they combed through the vegetation just fine. Growing new crops amid the cover seemed to improve rather than inhibit them, Hill said, and they could still kill the cover later with chemicals after the corn or soybeans were planted, because those seeds had been genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate.
Giving the cover a few more days after planting helped it function as a living mulch bed for the new seed, Hill said. He explained that this “overlap of green” appealed to him economically and environmentally. He believed it was providing better nutrient absorption, higher yields and healthier soils.
The results he saw were encouraging enough that he used the same overlap method with more crops each year. He now plants 90 percent of his corn and soybeans directly into growing covers of cereal rye, barley or wheat.
He does this even though many farmers on the Shore, and, at first, his own father, thought he’d lost his mind. Farmers tend to like the look of green corn sprouting from bare soil, or at least flattened cover crops. That way, they can easily scan the fields for any problems. Hill acknowledged it’s a little harder to spot problems and he sometimes has to walk the fields to find them. But it’s a worthwhile trade-off, he contended.
“My environmental footprint has been reduced significantly,” he said, because the longer-living cover crops are scouring far more nutrients from the soil and not letting them wash away. “I won’t say ‘exponentially’ at this point, but I think I will once I have it fully researched.”
The research Hill is conducting with Weil is taking place on a 10-acre test plot behind Harborview Farms’ grain elevators and solar panels. Hill said he hopes it will confirm his hunch that planting into the right mix of cover at the right time can do as much for his cash crops as it can for water quality.
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation is funding Weil’s cover crop research on a handful of farms, but Hill is paying out-of-pocket for the seed and equipment used on his farm.
As widely used as cover crops are in Maryland, Hill and Weil agree that the farming community knows relatively little about their secondary benefits, in part because there hasn’t been that much research of that aspect.
In his office, Hill pulls up a color-coded chart showing results from planting different types of cover crops in strips across a nearby field, with one strip left fallow as a control. A few weeks earlier, each of those strips received varying amounts of chemical fertilizer to test whether Hill’s usual spring application is enough, not enough or too much when combined with certain cover crops. This fall, the data on crop yields from these fields will help him determine which cover crops return the most nutrients to his corn at the right time.
But the experiment is already showing the yields that cover crops can return for water quality.
In February and March, when only the cover crops were growing, Weil and a group of UMD students came out to measure the amount of nitrogen flowing through the groundwater below them. They found little difference between the various mixes of cover crops — but all of them absorbed four times the volume of nitrates as the rows with no cover crop at all.
For Hill, that confirmed the good work his cover crops are doing in the thick of winter and it further piques his interest in the experiment’s next steps.
“My question is, if I’m keeping all this nitrogen in the plants, when do I get it back? Do I get it back? And, if they’re keeping it, is it costing me money?” Hill asked.
He should get some answers to those questions this fall when the machine that harvests the corn tells him which of the test plots had the best yields. But he can hardly wait until then.
He left the experiment’s charts in his office and walked past the four hulking combines the farm owns to the test plot. He keeps these acres close to the farm office so he can visit them frequently.
“Once your eye gets trained, you can pick up the different hues of green,” Hill said as he scanned the field of hip-high corn.
Some strips had strands of rye or triticale peeking out between the stocks, while daikon radishes had already died and begun decomposing in others. Hill said the shades of green reflect which of those cover crops are sharing the most nitrogen with the corn at this point in its growing cycle. What matters most, he said, is which ones give the crop a boost in August when the crop needs it.
He yanked a healthy-looking corn stalk from the ground to show off the soils in a portion where radishes had helped aerate the soil.
“All these casings are from earthworms,” he said, pointing out visible holes in the dry soil. The dirt under his fingernails indicated he has a habit of digging in the dirt, even though his machinery could do this work for him. “That’s a good sign of soil health.”
From Weil’s perspective, the experiment could provide more fodder for the argument that farmers have more than one incentive to grow cover crops.
“While farmers are happy to accept the subsidy” in Maryland, Weil said, “I think that those who use the cover crops in creative ways realize that they are worth planting — even if you’re not paid for them.”
At the Choose Clean Water Coalition conference in Annapolis earlier this year, Hill shared with a Bay-minded audience that he thinks farmers are doing a lot to reduce their impact on water quality, but more could be done. The next frontier, he said, is using precise science to keep as many nutrients as possible on the farm.
“The more we can bridge the gap of green on the farm, the better off we are and the less chance there is for runoff,” he said. “I think people say, ‘We have done everything.’ But I think a lot more can be done by getting farmers used to doing things a little different.”
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