There’s a discussion going on in Congress about the next Farm Bill that could help Maryland farmers. It concerns expanding U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs that encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices. Based on my experience with USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, I think this is an excellent idea.
I grow organic feed and food-grade grains on 420 acres near Salisbury, on the farm where I grew up. I knew that I wanted to farm since I was a teenager. I worked on my family’s conventional grain farm, but it wasn’t possible for me to make it a full-time job. So I farmed a few acres in my off hours and worked in the University of Maryland’s wheat and barley breeding program.
I started transitioning two acres of the farm to organic vegetable production in 2007, when I was still at my day job. I decided to farm organically because I knew it would allow me to earn more money per acre so I could switch to farming full time. Focusing on grain allowed me to eventually take over the rest of the family farm from my dad.
Transitioning from conventional to organic farming can be difficult and costly, especially in the beginning. I was able to make that transition successfully and start farming full time in 2017 with help from the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.
Like other federal farm conservation programs, EQIP is entirely voluntary. EQIP provides technical and financial assistance to farmers who to want to adopt conservation practices that promote clean air and water, healthier soil, more resilient land, and better wildlife habitat—and improve their agricultural operations at the same time.
Farming without using pesticides and other chemicals doesn’t just allow me to charge a premium for the organic grain I grow and the organic animal feed I make from it. It is also good for the Chesapeake Bay.
We have a tidal creek running through the farm that goes to the Wicomico River, and ultimately the Bay. I see that water every day and I know that what I do on the farm impacts it directly. I don’t like the thought of nutrients from my farm leaching into that water. Honestly, no farmer wants that.
These days I’m using EQIP to create seven acres of pollinator habitat on marginal land on my farm. I’d also like to use it for a cover crop project that would improve my soil, keep nutrients out of the water, and save money on fertilizer.
I want to interplant a cover crop in my corn fields in mid-August, a month before I harvest the corn. The soil is warm through mid-October so there are lots of microbes actively breaking down nutrients. Instead of letting valuable nutrients like nitrogen and potassium go to waste, planting the cover crop early would allow it to take up more nutrients as it grows and return them to the soil when it dies.
I would end up with healthier soil for my cash crop. I’d also save about $150 to $200 an acre on fertilizer I don’t have to apply. And the cover crop would prevent the soil from eroding and ending up in the creek, the Wicomico River, and the Chesapeake Bay for two more months.
But seeding a cover crop into rows of standing corn requires specialized equipment I can’t afford on my own. And there’s no guarantee that I can secure EQIP funding either. Farm Bill conservation programs are so popular they reject more applications than they accept, according to USDA figures.
Here in Maryland, farmers submitted 790 EQIP applications in 2020. But only 266, or 34 percent, got contracts. The 47 percent average acceptance rate from 2005 to 2020 is more encouraging. But that still means USDA turned away more than half of applications for projects that could have helped Maryland farmers improve their operations and reduce pollution in Maryland waterways and the Bay.
EQIP and other voluntary USDA conservation programs are a win-win proposition for Maryland farmers and the Chesapeake Bay. Many of us have ideas for conservation projects that would do a lot of good. We just can’t always afford to pursue them on our own.
Leaving those projects on the drawing board doesn’t help anyone. Instead of missing out on their benefits, Congress should increase funding for these programs in the Farm Bill it is considering so more farmers can put their conservation ideas into practice.
Aaron Cooper owns and operates Cutfresh Organics farm in Eden, MD.