Maryland farmers participating in the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) Cover Crop Program planted 398,679 acres of cover crops on their farms last fall to control soil erosion, reduce nutrient runoff and protect water quality in streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.

The 2010 cover crop planting is the largest in Maryland history and exceeds Maryland’s 2011 Bay cleanup goal by 20 percent.

“Our farmers continue to show their leadership in the Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts by planting a record number of acres of cover crops, exceeding their two-year goal by 20 percent,” said Governor Martin O’Malley. “Cover crops are the workhorse of our Bay restoration efforts.”

Cover crops are widely considered to be one of the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways to control soil erosion and reduce nutrient runoff in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries over the winter.

According to MDA, the 398,679 acres of cover crops planted will prevent an estimated 2.4 million pounds of nitrogen and 80,000 pounds of phosphorus from potentially impacting the Bay and its tributaries.

“The weather conditions were perfect this year for farmers to plant cover crops,” said Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance. “Farmers can count on a strong program with consistent funding from year to year, making it possible for them plan ahead and include cover crops a part of their normal cropping system.”

The MDA touted the cover-crop total as a state record, but The Baltimore Sun reported the state reduced its target for cover crop plantings last year after a disappointing response by farmers in fall 2009 to efforts by the state to get them to sign up for the government-funded, voluntary pollution control effort.

Officials originally had set their sights on getting 460,000 acres covered by this fall, nearly double what farmers had put in in 2008 and roughly half of all the state's croplands. But plantings actually declined in the fall of 2009, mostly likely due to rainy weather. a drop attributed mainly to rainy weather keeping farmers out of their fields.

As a result, state officials revised their cover crop goal downward to 325,000 acres, and proposed other pollution control measures in their bay cleanup plan to make up for it.

According to The Sun, the state also redoubled efforts to encourage farmers to plant the crops, sweetening the payments farmers could get to a maximum of $95 an acre (or even $106 an acre under a similar federal program) and relaxing limits on how many acres could be eligible for government funding.

Perhaps heartened by the recent response, the state upped its target slightly for cover crop plantings in its latest bay cleanup plan — to 355,000 acres, still well short of the original goal, the newspaper reported.