The Star Democrat

Hughes Center funds Ag Research

February 24, 2018.

QUEENSTOWN — The Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology will provide nearly $159,000 in grant funding for two separate proposals that aim to understand different aspects of soil health in Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.

This study, performed jointly by the University of Maryland, George Washington University, the University of Delaware and Resources for the Future, deals with a phenomenon called saltwater intrusion, or when saltwater from the Bay or ocean moves into groundwater.

As saltwater infiltrates the groundwater, it can change the chemistry of the soil, which can have devastating results for forests and farmland.

The research aims to determine the extent of saltwater intrusion in the study area and its effect on soil health, and the role it plays in washing away nutrients built up in the soil, which ultimately affects Chesapeake Bay water quality. The study will also look at how to ameliorate the resulting stress on crops.

“One of the reasons why saltwater intrusion is particularly pernicious is because the outcomes are really challenging to predict, especially when you are dealing with agricultural land, where some of the nutrient histories and legacies are buried in the soil and they aren’t unlocked until you have this interaction with saltwater,” Dr. Kate Tully said. She is a principal investigator of the study and assistant professor of agroecology with the University of Maryland.

The study takes a regional approach, targeting Dorchester and Somerset counties, which are not only two of the more vulnerable locales on the Eastern Shore for sea level rise but also are among the poorest in Maryland.

Targeting regions struck by poverty, an objective of the study is to generate new and emerging, sustainable agricultural markets for salt-tolerant crops in these particular counties.

“We are excited to support expansion of the Tully proposal to help identify the extent of saltwater intrusion in Dorchester and Somerset counties and determine salt-resistant crops,” said Verna Harrison, Hughes Center board member and principal of Verna Harrison Associates LLC, a firm specializing in organizational development and resource protection with an emphasis on clean water.

“This research with direct applicability to Maryland farmers helps advance the Hughes Center mission to promote environmentally sound and economically viable agriculture,” Harrison said.

“Dr. Tully’s project is a great example of the Hughes Center getting out in front of a looming issue. Saltwater intrusion and its impact on agriculture are going to be big issues in the future,” said Steve Black said, owner of Raemelton Farm and Hughes Center board member.

“By funding early research on a still-developing problem, the Hughes Center can have a greater impact on the future success of Maryland farmers,” Black said.

The Hughes Center is funding part of this research with a $126,913 grant, for the aspect of the study that looks at ameliorating salt stress. A broader objective of this study also is being funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Research promoting economic and environmental benefits of multispecies cover crops through the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts aims to promote the benefits of multi-species cover crops. The Hughes Center is fully funding it at $31,900.

The Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost Share program has been funding traditional, nitrogen sequestering cover crops, for farmers planting them in the fall for many years now.

Cover crops recycle unused plant nutrients remaining in the soil from a preceding summer crop and work during the winter to prevent erosion.

While the benefits of these traditional cover crops to water quality have been proven and promoted for many years, the economic and soil health benefits of multispecies cover crops have not traditionally been highlighted through the cover crop program.

Multispecies cover crops have not been funded until recently, and there is still a financial incentive given for non-mixes of cereal rye.

The proposal hypothesizes that there are economic, environmental and soil health benefits to be realized by farmers planting multispecies cover crops not solely intended for nitrogen uptake.

By understanding how benefits like nutrient management and farm profitability can be optimized, Maryland farmers will continue their status as national leaders in conservation farming practices.

“There is more to cover cropping than just cereal rye. Mono-culture grass is really just scratching the surface of what cover crops can do for Maryland agriculture,” Black said. “By funding the project, the Hughes Center is showing its desire to look at the role of cover crops holistically, from their environmental services to their impact on the farm bottom line.”

Principal investigator Lindsay Thompson plans to demonstrate an economic benefit of planting multi-species cover crops through five case studies, with a goal to increase multi-species cover crops plantings throughout Maryland.

“By funding Thompson’s research, the Hughes Center is helping to develop a better understand of the economic impact of a wider range of cover crops,” Black said.

Based in Queenstown, the Hughes Center provides leadership to promote environmentally sound and economically viable agriculture and forestry as Maryland’s preferred land use through research, outreach and collaboration. It serves as a national model, highlighting Maryland’s agriculture, forestry and environmental communities, using collaboration to form science-based solutions to manage and conserve natural resources in the Chesapeake Watershed.

Find out more about the Hughes Center and view past research here: