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Md. Farmers Flock To Nitrogen-Eating 'Cover Crops'

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Field of soybeans at the Lazy Day Farms and Layton Chance Winery in Dorchester County. Cover crops, which help remove excess nitrogen from the soil, are planted in the corn fields, which are off in the distance to the right.
Matt Bush
Field of soybeans at the Lazy Day Farms and Layton Chance Winery in Dorchester County. Cover crops, which help remove excess nitrogen from the soil, are planted in the corn fields, which are off in the distance to the right.

Farmers markets all across the region are currently filled with the bounty of this year's harvest. Come winter, state farmers will continue to grow -- but these crops will never make it to market.

The only purpose of the "cover crops" several Maryland farmers will plant this fall is to clean the environment.

Joe Layton is one of the owners of Lazy Day Farm and Layton's Chance Vineyard and Winery in Dorchester County, Md. They grow several crops, including grapes, grain, soybeans and corn.

This winter, they'll also have something new to capture nitrogen in the soil: a cover crop.

"In the past, we've used wheat. This year we're going to do forage radishes, which are related to traditional radishes, but a much bigger radish," says Layton. "It has a deep taproot. They are very efficient in taking up excess nitrogen. They tend to be very good for the soil ... we hope."

Taking up unused nitrogen is the whole point of cover crops, as nitrogen from soil runoff is one of the biggest pollutants of the Chesapeake Bay. The state of Maryland has set up a program that offers farmers grants to grow cover crops in the winter.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley went to the Lazy Day Farm to announce enrollment in the program has hit a record this year. The state has approved grants for more than 550,000 acres of farmland from 1,276 farmers to date -- 206 of which were new applicants, according to a statement from O'Malley's office.

Layton says the grants are important to farmers because cover crops aren't a money-maker for them.

"What the state pays us about pays for the cost, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less," Layton says. "But the real advantage is environmentally, in that nitrogen that is left in the soil after a crop is at-risk at being leeched into groundwater. Because in the wintertime, when nothing is growing, water leeches all the way through the soil and takes up whatever nitrogen is there."

Don't expect to find radishes from Lazy Day in your local market anytime soon, though.

"We don't harvest them at all," says Layton. "Any cover crops we grow stay on the ground to decay and to produce organic matter and to take the nutrients back to the soil so that they will be available to other crops in the future."

Layton says they will start planting the cover crops in October.

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