(The Center Square) – A new pilot program would pay urban farmers to grow cover crops in the winter.

The program is designed to improve soil and water quality, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said, as growers would be eligible to receive up to $1,000 per year under the Small Acreage Cover Crop program.

“The incredible character, work ethic, and resilience of our farmers has been an inspiration to me and to all Marylanders,” Hogan said in a release. “Grant programs like these demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that all our farmers continue to be good stewards of the land and that agriculture remains our state’s number one industry.”

No-till soybeans planted in wheat field serve as a stubble cover crop. Credit: J.J. Gouin / Shutterstock.com

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has offered a traditional cover crop program for years, but it was limited to five acres or more, Bill Tharpe, program administrator of the Small Farm and Urban Agriculture Program, told The Center Square.

“We realized there are smaller operations – whether it’s urban, rural or suburban – that are growing crops on less than five acres, so we developed a program this summer that would focus on those types of operations,” Tharpe said.

Cover crops include wheat, rye, barley, legumes, and brassicas, he said, and payouts will come from carryover money from previous years.

“They can take up leftover nutrients that are in the soil from the prior crop,” Tharpe said. “Whatever the previous crop was – vegetable or corn or flowers, herbs – if it did not use up all the nitrogen, or other nutrients during the growing season, that residual is still there and the cover crop can take that nutrient up so there’s no runoff or water quality issue in a storm drain or nearby stream.”

Cover crops also help build up the soil biologically, Tharpe said.

“You can reduce your fertilizer costs in the next growing season,” he said.

Cover crops can also reduce erosion.

“It’s providing a cover at times when there might not be a crop or canopy over the top of the ground,” Tharpe said.

Typically, cover crops are not harvested and taken to market as normal crops are, Tharpe added. Instead, they are cleared to make way for spring crops after fulfilling their purpose over the winter months.

“For the most part, the purpose is biomass and the biological input into the soil health for the next growing season,” he said.

Cover crops are typically planted between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30.

“We’re running the open application process pretty much through that Nov. 30 date,” he said.

Applications and other documents can be obtained on the Department of Agriculture website. In order to qualify, growers must sell or donate at least $1,000 in crops each year.

Urban agriculture has a long history in Maryland, Tharpe said.

“It’s just now getting the attention of local, state, and federal agencies,” he said. “I believe the COVID-19 pandemic really showed the supply chain deficiencies that we can have. Local products became a need. I think urban and small-farm agriculture can in the future fill that gap.”

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