Maryland is increasing the amount it pays farmers to control farm pollution, which has been blamed for poor water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

Under the new plan, the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program will reimburse farmers up to 87.5 percent of the cost of hiring a private, certified consultant to prepare a nutrient-management plan for their farm.

The cost-sharing plan has a limit of $750 for small fruit and vegetable farms, those covering 25 acres or less, and $3,500 for grain farms of more than 1,000 acres, said Ed Sanders, administrator of the state program.

Reimbursements had been limited to 50 percent, or $3 an acre.

Farms with a gross annual income of more than $2,500 and livestock operations with more than 8,000 pounds of live animal weight are required to have nutrient-management plans as a result of the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1988.

State lawmakers approved the legislation after nutrient runoff from farms was suspected in outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in 1997. The outbreak caused portions of three Maryland waterways to be closed and prompted concern about the safety of Maryland seafood.

Under the new plan, the state will pay up to $6 per acre for traditional grain and animal operations and up to $20 an acre for vegetable or nursery operations.

“This is going to be a big help to farmers,” said Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts. “But this is not a giveaway. It will help farmers and benefit everybody by improving the environment.”

Talbot County grain farmer Phil “Chip” Councell Jr. estimated the cost of developing a plan for his 700 acres of grain and 50 acres of vegetables at $8,000 to $10,000.

“It’s a help, but it doesn’t come close to covering my cost of setting up a nutrient management plan,” he said.

The Water Quality Act requires farmers using chemical fertilizers to have a nitrogen– and phosphorus-based nutrient-management plan by Dec. 31, 2001 and to implement the plan by Dec. 31, 2002.

Farmers using animal manure or sewage sludge on their fields must have a nitrogen-based plan in place by Dec. 31, 2001, and have it in place a year later. They will then be required to have a nitrogen – and phosphorus-based plan by July 1, 2004, with implementation a year later.