Thursday, May 26th, 2011
By Nancy Allen
Regs may kill cover crop effort
Planting delayed
  Federal crop insurance regulations and delayed planting this spring may kill efforts to get Grand Lake watershed farmers to adopt cover crops, local ag officials fear.
Cover crops are the best way to keep phosphorous from running off farm fields and into Grand Lake where it feeds toxic blue-green algae blooms, said Mercer County OSU Extension educator Jim Hoorman.
Cover crops are planted in the fall and keep sediment and attached nutrients in place during winter and spring months and give farmers a place upon which to spread manure. The crops are killed in early spring so corn and soybeans can be planted.
Crop insurance policies require that cover crops be killed by May 15. That didn't happen this year.
Wet fields have made it impossible for farmers to get into the fields at all, Hoorman said.
Private crop insurance agents are telling farmers that if their cover crops were not terminated by the deadline, they are no longer insured for corn, or soybeans planted instead of corn. Also, if farmers can't plant corn or soybeans at all due to wet weather, they will not be insured for prevented planting payments because of the existence of a mature cover crop.
"We are working to get this fixed now and for the next farm bill," said Hoorman, who's worked the last four years to get watershed farmers to plant cover crops. "Cover crops are needed and are part of the solution. If we don't fix this (crop insurance regulations), we won't be able to fix the lake trouble."
Farmers in the lake watershed have planted about 6,000 acres of cover crops; 10,000 acres have been planted in the county, Hoorman said.
Chris Gibbs, Mercer County Farm Service Agency executive director, has discussed the deadline issue with aids representing U.S. senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown and U.S. Congressman John Boehner.
Gibbs was to attend a meeting today of officials from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, USDA, National Weather Service and Ohio farm and commodity groups for an update on Ohio's spring planting and the outlook for the season. Gibbs said he will brief that group on the cover crop issue. A remedy would likely include extending the May 15 deadline, he said.
The deadline is set by the USDA Crop Insurance Risk Management Agency (RMA); private crop insurance agencies' policies are underwritten by RMA.
"Certainly, RMA has their responsibilities to protect their claims process, and I'm confident if they can assist our local farmers they will," Gibbs said.
The issue is on the minds of many farmers, he added.
"We certainly do not want to get ourselves into a situation where we penalize those who are changing their management for better water quality," Gibbs said.
Chris Sorensen of Sorensen Insurance Agency, Wapakoneta, said RMA regulations do not allow for insuring corn or soybeans planted into the same field if the mature cover crop is killed after May 15. This would constitute insuring two crops under the same policy, which RMA does not allow, he said.
Sorensen, whose agency serves farmers in Mercer and Auglaize counties, said his phone has been ringing a lot because of the issue. He said it is a turnoff for all farmers planting cover crops.
"They're most definitely upset," he said. "They're also in shock over the entire weather situation as well."
The lake has made headlines due to toxic algae blooms fed largely by runoff of manure and fertilizers from farmland in the livestock-heavy watershed.
On Jan. 18, the watershed was designated distressed, triggering new laws that require those farmers to follow new guidelines when spreading manure. The guidelines are based in part on nutrient levels in individual fields.
The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has offered special cost-share money to incentivize lake watershed farmers to try cover crops.
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