Do you wonder why farmers seem to be planting instead of harvesting?

Delaware farmers are busy bringing in 2017’s crops -- and are just as busy planting new ones.

But they’re not traditional cash crops, such as wheat or soybeans; they’re relatively worthless plants with names like triticale, forage radishes and even hairy vetch.

Normally, planting these crops would be pretty much a money-loser, except that they are paid by the state to do so: it’s part of a decades-long effort to help the environment and reduce nutrient pollution of Delaware’s watersheds.

These plantings, called cover crops, help absorb unneeded chemicals from the earth and hold in place soils that could erode with fall rains and winter snows.

While farmers in all three Delaware counties plant cover crops, the program in Sussex County is the most expansive, said Debbie Absher, director of agricultural programs for the Sussex Conservation District.

“Cover crops are what you plant in the off-season so that the ground is covered,” Absher said. “Once your cash crops come off the field, cover crops hold the soil in place.”

Leaving barren soil uncovered without some sort of planting raises the specter of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Poor farming practices and drought conditions just before that decade resulted in more than 100 million acres of prime prairie farmland being stripped of fertile topsoil, sending wind-blown clouds of dirt as far east as Washington, D.C. Thousands of families were displaced in what is considered a major ecological disaster.

“When there’s nothing planted over the soil in the winter to hold it in place, it blows,” Absher said, leaving what remains almost infertile.

“If you lose the top few inches of soil, you lose the nutrients,” she said.

A living thing

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, soil is a vibrant ecosystem, supporting plants, animals and humans. The goal for Absher’s group, and the other conservation districts in the First State, is to keep soils healthy for future generations.

“Soil health is everything,” Absher said. “The soil is living; there are things in the soil that help make it better.”

Keeping soils productive means sustaining those living things, from earthworms and beetles to the smallest microorganisms. The soils beneath each farm teem with billions of these creatures, all working in a complex matrix to sustain each other and contribute to man’s ability to harvest vegetables, fruits and grains and to maintain the animals we use for food.

“They create organic matter, and the higher the organic matter, the more productive the soil,” she said.

Well maintained soil also regulates the flow of water, filters natural and some manmade pollutants and provides the means to support plants as they grow.

However, just as humans can damage or destroy this delicately balanced ecosystem, as was done more than 80 years ago, humans also can preserve it.

Implementing cover crops during the off-season growing period is one way of keeping soil healthy, Absher said.

Water quality

But cover crops do more than just hold the soil in place: they help with water quality and in preparing the land for next season.

“When farmers plant their crops, they use fertilizers,” Absher said. “If the plants don’t use the nutrients in the fertilizer while they’re growing, extra nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients are left in the soil.”

If there is nothing growing, the land absorbs the rain, which filters deep into the ground.

“There is potential for those excess nutrients to leach into the underground aquifers and in turn, underground water tables,” Absher said.

Unused nutrients can wash into rivers and streams, eventually feeding algae and other aquatic growth. That cuts off oxygen supplies resulting in mass fish kills, she said.

Cover crops also suppress the growth of weeds, which means farmers needn’t apply additional chemicals to keep out bad plants. Rotating cash crops each year, such as planting corn one season and soybeans the next, also helps maintain soil health, she said.

Rotating the cover crops works the same way.

“You can get creative,” Absher said. “One year you plant winter wheat, another year you plant rye, another year you plant forage radishes.”

The latter is particularly helpful: unlike their round, red cousins found in grocery stores, forage radishes look more like carrots, reaching up to 14 inches into the ground. They help break up compacted soil, making it easier to plant, Absher said.

Other cover crops include rapeseed and forage turnips, which help keep down weeds, and hairy vetch, a good soil conditioner.

In 2014, the Sussex district began using a reconditioned crop sprayer that blows cover crop seeds underneath still-growing cash crops. This allows planting during warmer summer months, giving them more time to get established.

During the 2016 season, Sussex used this air sprayer to seed more than 6,400 acres, incurring almost no damage to the standing cash crops.

Harvest yes, sell no

Delaware began a program to improve soil health about 30 years ago. At the time many farmers used manure to fertilize fields; the manure often was left in large piles until it was used.

“Back in the 1980s we realized that probably wasn’t a good idea,” Absher said. “They were putting down too many nutrients that were leaching into the ground.”

The cover crop program morphed out of an effort to control the use of so much manure. To help get the program off the ground and to sustain it later, the state offers a $50 per acre financial incentive for farmers to get the cover crops in the ground by Sept. 15.

Farmers sign contracts to take part in the program, and the money helps offset the expense of planting, she said. Each farmer is limited to receiving $5,000 in cover crop assistance.

“It’s expensive to plant a crop they don’t get to harvest,” Absher said. “They get nothing when the crop is done.”

While the state allows farmers to harvest their cover crops, they’re only allowed to use that harvest on their own land. Before planting the next cash crop, the cover crops are killed with a herbicide, plowed under or turned into silage and used for animal feed during the winter.

Selling it is not allowed.

But there has been a hitch lately: the need to balance state budgets has seen a reduction in cover crop funds available. Prior to about 10 years ago, state lawmakers budgeted about $3.2 million annually, divided among the three counties. In 2017, the General Assembly allocated only about half that; Sussex received about $650,000. Absher worked to supplement it with other sources, raising that figure to about $900,000.

The Sussex Conservation District just completed its sign-up period for the remainder of the year, and expects about 44,200 acres of county farmland to be under cover crops for this season.