Committee to boost soil program in Maryland
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A new Maryland advisory committee met on Dec. 2 to begin development of the state’s Healthy Soils Program to assist and encourage farmers to implement additional soil and yield-buliding practices on farmland.
State legislation in 2017 established the Healthy Soils Program and charged the Maryland Department of Agriculture with leading the effort to increase biological activity and carbon sequestration.
The legislation also requires MDA to provide incentives, subject to available funding, to farmers for implementing soil health practices.
MDA formed the 32-member committee representing the agricultural, environmental and conservation industries to gain feedback and insight on making an effective program.
“It’s so important to get feedback from you as we build this program,” said Hans Schmidt, MDA assistant secretary for resource conservation. “Our farmers are doing a lot of soil health practices.
“What we need to think about is taking it out of the box and taking it to the next level.”
According to its most recent soil health census, the National Soil Institute rated Maryland first nationally in percent of available crop land planted in cover crops and second in the use of no-till practices.
Schmidt added the program is also part of the Maryland’s plan to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030.
Schmidt also said the program must be inclusive of all the state’s producers and accommodate farm size, crops grown, soil type, geography
Schmidt reviewed current soil health practices supported by the department and already employed on farms, Schmidt asked for discussion from the committee on what’s needed for long and short term support.
Committee members said having a soil health evaluation tool farmers can understand and trust is critical.
Rock Hall, Md., farmer Trey Hill, who has participated in carbon credit trading and continually experiments with cover crops and soil building practices on his farm said he knows what healthy soil looks and feels like but doesn’t have a testing method that adequately measures what’s happening in the field.
“Soil health testing is still a mystery to me,” Hill said.
Hill added if Maryland can establish sound analytical tools for carbon sequestration, it would put the state’s farmers ahead of the curve as carbon markets evolve and mature. While the program needs to work for farmers all over the state, committee members said the program also should be adaptable to be effective if different areas.
“Whatever we come up with…has to be practical for the farmer,” said Del. Dana Stein, a committee member and sponsor of the 2017 bill.
Adequate technical assistance was another necessary part of the program having success committee members identified as well as educating farmers on the agronomic rewards of adding new soil health practices.
How the program is communicated to farmers is important, too, committee member and Talbot County farmer Bobby Hutchison said. With yields increasing over time on his farms, “I didn’t know I had a soil health problem,” he said.
He said he’s fully supportive of the committee’s efforts and creating a soil health program but putting more focus on incentivizing carbon sequestration would be more appealing to farmers than a broad call to improve soil health.
The committee is expected to meet quarterly to continue development of the program, said Alisha Mulkey, program manager for planning and development in MDA’s Office of Resource Conservation.
Schmidt said by the end of 2020, the department hopes to have a basic framework for the program mapped out.