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Unique Approaches Offer a Range of Solutions to Clean Up the Bay

When it comes to improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay, a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work. A unique conservation plan is required for every farm in the watershed. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Delaware Maryland Agribusiness Association are joining forces to provide farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula with a wide array of tools to meet water quality goals.

Offered through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), the Delmarva Whole System Conservation Partnership - Field to Stream project is working across state lines to increase the implementation of advanced nutrient management practices and wetland restoration in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. These conservation practices will not only reduce unwanted excess nutrients and sediments from entering local waterways but also help landowners meet their agricultural and natural resource goals.

Whether it’s promoting sound science to ensure crop growers are using the right nutrient applications, supporting organic farmers’ use of innovative practices to improve soil health or identifying the best mix of high and low tech solutions to help landowners solve complex wetland restorations, this unique partnership project is helping to reduce excess nutrients in the Bay.

Unique Farm Practices Yield Widespread Results in Maryland

The vertical tillage tool gleams, birds sing from tall grasses atop a bioreactor, and the smell of leafing tomato plants wafts from a high tunnel at Mason’s Heritage in Queen Anne’s, Maryland. Bill Mason and his son-in-law, Steve Kraszewski, farm 850 acres, most of which is dedicated to growing organic corn, soybeans, and barley. The sights, sounds, and smells on the land are evidence of pair’s open-minded approach to farming and hunger for science-based solutions to increase their bottom line.  They also believe that improving production efficiency goes hand in hand with protecting the natural resources on their farm.

“We try something different on a few acres every year to see if it improves yields,” says Bill. “If a practice shows an economic benefit, helps with impaction issues, and lessens our impact on the environment, we’re all for it,” adds Steve.

That’s where an interest in using gypsum as a soil amendment developed.

Chemically known as calcium sulfate dehydrate, Gypsum dissolves readily into most soils and releases calcium and sulfate ions that remain free within soil and available for uptake by plants and microorganisms. Gypsum binds with phosphorus in the soil and prevents it from running off. That’s important in this area of the watershed, where poultry litter is often used for fertilizer each spring.  The binding property also improves soil infiltration and impaction, obstacles to optimal soil health that many organic farmers face.

Steve began hearing about the need to replenish sulfur annually, depending on the crop, through presentations at agronomy days and crop school and discussions with other farmers. A presentation by the NRCS East National Technology Center discussed the potential need for sulfur to maintain soil health as well as a new practice NRCS has adopted to assist farmers in replenishing sulfur through gypsum soil amendments.

Steve and Bill went to the Queen Anne’s Soil Conservation District, where they found out financial and technical assistance for the gypsum soil amendment practice was available through the Delmarva RCPP  project and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. They signed up for the practice which offers the chance to assess the effects on two different crops in their rotation.

Early this spring, Bill and Steve applied gypsum on a 70-acre homogenous field that will be planted in corn. This is the latest addition to their arsenal of conservation practices. “Like any farmer, we’re looking for that golden nugget, the one thing that reduces the time we spend in the field and provides results,” says Bill.

Cover crops are planted on every acre in the fall to improve soil health and suppress weeds, with new mixes and rotations added every year. The farms boasts two high tunnels to extend the growing season and improve the quality of the plants grown for the Mason’s produce stand on the farm. A bioreactor filters drainage water through a trench filled with woodchips that break down nitrogen compounds and improve water quality.

Reducing tillage is a driving factor in the day-to-day operations at Mason’s Heritage. Vertical tillage equipment is used to lightly till the soil and cut up residue, mixing and anchoring a portion of the residue into the upper few inches of soil while still leaving large quantities of residue on the soil surface. Some fields require strip-tillage, where 6-inch wide residue-free strips of soil are tilled ahead of planting using a knife apparatus, and seeds are planted directly into the strip of loosened soil.

“While we’ll continue to try new practices in hopes that we find a magic bullet, we also realize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to being the best stewards of our land,” says Steve.

Accomplishing More Together

To learn more about how the Delmarva Whole System Conservation Partnership –Field to Stream project is impacting growers and landowners in Delaware and Virginia, visit www.de.nrcs.usda.gov and www.va.nrcs.usda.gov and read Precisely the Right Choice in Delaware and Water Quality Improvement through Wetland Restoration in Virginia.

Farmers interested in technical or financial assistance for implementing practices such as advanced nutrient management, precision ag or wetland restoration should contact their local USDA Service Center. To locate the office nearest you, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov and click on the Contact Us tab.