Beginning Farmer Success Interview Series

Jerry Spence and Luis Dieguez looking at cover crop. 

Image Credit: Andrea Francini

December 14, 2022
By Andrea Franchini

University of Maryland Extension talked with Luis Dieguez, the District Manager at the Charles Soil Conservation District (CSCD), and Jerry Spence, a Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) Agricultural Resource Conservation Specialist and Conservation Planner to learn how the Soil Conservation District helps farmers identify resource concerns and implement conservation best management practices on their land.

Q: What is the Charles Soil Conservation District, and how does the District help farmers identify and implement conservation best management practices on their land?   

A: Luis Dieguez: The Charles Soil Conservation District is a complicated network of agencies working together. Along with Soil Conservation District personnel, Maryland Department of Agriculture personnel and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service personnel work here together to plan and implement conservation practices. For starters, we have a planner that would go out to a farm to assess the land and determine what practices are needed. Here on the CSCD farm Jerry Spence was the individual who assessed our land and determined what we needed to install as far as the applicable best management practices. 

Jerry Spence: We were fortunate here when the District purchased the property in 2017; many conservation practices were already installed. The prior owner had installed forest buffers along wetlands and streams, so we maintain those areas. We did find resource concerns; the primary one was a gully erosion issue in one of our larger fields. So a few years ago, we installed a grass waterway. The soils here are somewhat poor, probably poorer than average for the county, so we recommend and require our tenant to apply cover crops in the fall to help stabilize the soil and improve it long term. We have a very basic crop rotation plan. Cover crops play an important role, but we don't have the same crop planted repeatedly. Crops planted in our rotation are primarily annual hay crops, sorghum-sudangrass, pearl millet, and cover crops. One of our challenges is that we have extremely high deer pressure, so for instance, we can't plant soybeans here effectively.

To review, we've installed the grass waterway and installed stabilization on that waterway and mulching to establish it. We've implemented cover crops and crop rotations, nutrient management, and no-till farming. All the crops we plant in the field are planted using  no-till methods with a planter or a drill. Our soil hasn't been tilled for at least six years, and we hope to continue that into the future. Those are our practices. 

Q: Would you give us a tour of the conservation practices implemented here onsite at the CSCD farm, and tell us how to identify resource concerns?

# 1: Conservation Best Management Practices: Cover Crop, Crop Rotation and No-Till Planting Methods

A: Jerry Spence: So we are out in the field now looking at the ryegrass cover crop planted around the 10th of October. It was planted to capture excess nutrients left behind from the sorghum-sudangrass hay crop harvested for livestock feed. Also, the reason we use cover crops here is to try to improve soil health. Along with the nutrient capture, the cover crop also improves soil structure because the roots of the growing plants always help improve soil structure and soil aggregation. 

We have a couple of issues on this site. Historically, there was land use that was difficult for the soil. In southern Maryland, we had hundreds of years of tobacco cultivation that caused soil erosion. Also, there was mining on this site at one time, so the soil has been degraded quite a bit. We're trying to use these cover crops to capture nutrients, improve soil structure, and increase organic matter.

One of the problems we have here is compaction. When we go out into a field and look at soil, we often find compacted soils. Several problems cause this. The biggest one is infiltration. If you can't infiltrate the water, you have run off. That runoff causes erosion somewhere else. Also, when the water runs off the soil, it's not going into the ground to be utilized by plants, reducing the available water plants need to grow. Reducing compaction is one of the most important things you can do on a farm. Cover cropping and no-till planting methods are among the best ways to alleviate compaction over time.

To demonstrate using a pin flag, I have to put a fair amount of pressure on it to go through the soil. I'm encountering resistance near the surface, probably at about three inches, and then it's soft again. So even though we've been using no-till and cover crops for six years on this site, we still have a compacted layer at about three to six inches. This is because the previous farmer probably would have tested the soil and worked up the top few inches, but in doing so, compacted the next three or four inches below it. Cover crops and no-till farming will alleviate that compaction. We will have better water infiltration into the soil, leading to better plant growth and, finally, better organic matter and soil over time.

Q: How do these best management practices support meeting water quality goals for the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

A: Jerry Spence: The cover crops, in particular, scavenge nutrients. So if this nutrient isn't scavenged, it will be lost to the environment. Much of that nitrogen will be leached out into the soil profile and cause nutrient loading downstream. So the cover crops are important because they hold that nutrient over winter when the other plants aren't growing. When that cover crop decomposes in the spring and summer, some of that nutrient release can be used by the next cash crop.

#2 Conservation Best Management Practice: Grassed Waterway

Jerry Spence: We're now standing in a grassed waterway. We installed a grassed waterway a few years ago to remedy a gully erosion problem in the field. We had an area of concentrated flow from the parking lot of the Agricultural Service Center upslope of the field. Water congregated, ran off the parking lot, and then came down through the field, causing erosion. So we installed a grassed waterway using tall fescue to convey the water downslope safely. Its sole mission is to move the water downslope without causing gully erosion. Our technical staff designed this waterway and helped install it by being here and checking grades during installation. It's still a fair stand, but we need to overseed it with some more tall fescue to thicken it up. So far, it is holding very well. 

Luis Dieguez: We faced the same dilemma any new farmer might face. Of course, we had technical personnel on-site, but we did what we would do with anybody else. Just assess the land and give them the best practice that is applicable. 

 #3 Conservation Best Management Practice: Grade Stabilization Structure

Jerry Spence: This is our grade stabilization structure. As I mentioned before, we had gully erosion in the field. Frequently there is also gully erosion where the field stops and a hedgerow or a woodland starts. Here we have a head-cutting gully moving out of the woods towards the field. Because of this, we typically put some stabilization structure at the end of a grassed waterway. Here we installed a grade stabilization structure so the water can cross over this site, which is a slightly steeper slope, and not cause more head-cutting in the gully at the base of the grassed waterway. We don't want the water to continue to encroach up into the field to the grassed waterway. In other words, The grade stabilization structure is an anchor at the bottom of the grassed waterway, preventing the water from cutting a gully further into the field. We used a class one stone designed to handle the flows that come off the waterway, they helped heal that gully at the base. 

Q: Can you help our readers visualize this process? 

A: Jerry Spence: You can see the slope angle here at the stabilization structure is steeper than the grassed waterway; this is so you can convey the rest of the water down to where the ditch or swale is stable. There was a gully about three feet deep, and this gully was cutting up the field. So we put the grassed waterway in to convey the water downhill safely. The rock at the bottom portion of the grassed waterway is called grade stabilization because it stabilizes the grade from erosion.  

Q: Does the Grade Stabilization slow the water flow? 

A: Jerry Spence: It doesn't slow the water much. It conveys it further downslope. It prevents the water from scouring the gully, causing more erosion and creeping back up the grassed waterway. It does spread the water out and helps dissipate the velocity because of the roughness of the actual stone. The water is a bit turbulent as it goes through the stone, which will slow it from going so quickly down the slope. But more so, it conveys the water safely downslope to a place that is not eroding. That's the idea of it. 

Grade Stabilization Structure
Grade stabilization structure. Image courtesy of Andrea Francini.

Q: How would farmers plan for conservation best management practices?

A: Jerry Spence: The first step is to call their local Soil Conservation District and ask for a conservation planner to come out and visit their farm. We can assess the farm and look at different research concerns that may be onsite. Also, we can better understand the farmer's goals. It is important to include the farmer's goals in the conservation plan.

In our case, we realized that the previous owner prioritized buffers. The only problems we saw here were that there wasn't a very effective crop rotation, there wasn't cover cropping, and there was a gully in this field. So we moved to remedy all the situations through the conservation planning process.

Luis Dieguez: When working with a farmer, our goal is to have them participate in a soil conservation water quality plan that our staff would design for them. One of the things that we want to stress to them is that it's a voluntary document we would like for them to have developed for their property. 

Jerry Spence:  It's all voluntary conservation beginning back in the 1930s with the creation of the Soil Conservation Districts. 

Q: How much do practices like these typically cost to install? 

A: Jerry Spence: The cover crop costs around $50 an acre for the farmer to install yearly, give or take, $10 depending on how they source their seed and the equipment they use. Crop rotation helps pay for itself because there is always a yield advantage. So this is a practice every farmer should use because you get a slight yield bump by rotation crops. Crop rotation pays for itself over time. 

When you talk about structural practices, like grassed waterways and grade stabilization, there's a lot of variation in cost across the state. With the current inflation, the installation can be rather expensive to install.

This grassed waterway and grade stabilization is relatively typical and costs us around 12 or 13 thousand dollars. That was about four years ago, and prices are up probably 20-30%. 

Q: What is the typical time frame for installing these practices? 

A: Jerry Spence: If you need a conservation plan or water conservation plan, you're looking at about six months from the time you call the district. If you have a plan in hand it will depend on how complicated the practice is. We generally work on a first come, first serve basis. We're more or less fully staffed now, so if you have a six month planning process, you're looking at a nine month technical design process. For agronomic practices, the only limit there is the equipment and the access to resources that you have or don’t have. We have many agronomic practices that are installed, including cover crops that you plant year after year. So we have yearly practices or install practices and practices that have longer lifespans.The forest buffer is essentially there permanently.

Q: Are there financial assistance programs or incentives for farmers who want to implement conservation best management practices on their land?

A: Jerry: Yes. There is often a misconception that you just apply for grant money, which is different from how to properly think about conservation planning. You need that resource assessment upfront. 

You need that conversation with the conservation planner to figure out your goals, and the planner can also figure out what resource concerns your property has. We go to farms that don't have many resource concerns, and there's no need for major conservation or structural practices. The opposite is also true. Sometimes we go to farms, and we find gullies everywhere. Typically, we assist farmers interested in applying for conservation grants for some of the structural practices. But that's really a second step after the conservation planning process is completed. We document the resource needs, concerns, and practices in the conservation plan, and then we help the farmer look for financial assistance. 

There are multiple programs out there with multiple acronyms. The important thing to remember is that there is typically federal and state funding for structural conservation practices if needed.

So there is help for farmers to install these practices. For Charles County, visit or visit your local Soil Conservation District to learn more. 

Q: What should a new farmer look for when identifying land for agriculture while keeping soil conservation and the best management of Natural Resources in mind?

A: Jerry Spence: If a person is looking for farmland, I recommend finding a farm field. Generally speaking, if it's woodland in Southern Maryland, it's not very well suited for agricultural use. If it's an open field, it's previously been viewed as having some agronomic value. That's a pretty good assessment because 95% to 99% of the area in Charles County that was cleared was because it met some use for agriculture. Whereas the wooded areas, generally speaking, are less useful. Try to find open land first. It's much more challenging to clear wooded land in the long run. It might be a bit more expensive to buy crop land on the front end, but by the time you put all the effort into converting from forest land to cropland, the costs go through the roof. 

So for someone looking at a few properties, they're trying to assess where they may want to purchase. I recommend they check out Web Soil Survey. It's a web-based GSI system and relatively easy to use. You can locate your parcel, draw a polygon around the parcel you're considering, and clip off the soils that are mapped in that area. And the Web Soil Survey has tools to show you the surface texture, the subsurface texture, the agricultural suitability, the percent sand, silt, clay, and the slopes typical for that land unit. All kinds of valuable information you need to know when considering if you want to farm a parcel or not. If you're going to plant a crop that needs well-drained soil, you're not going to choose certain soils to purchase.

So your first step is to view the property for sale through the eyes of the Web Soil Survey to see how suitable it is for your intended use. For example, if you want a tree farm, certain trees will only grow well in well-drained soils. So you want to avoid purchasing a farm that has poorly drained or somewhat poorly drained soil because you're going to set yourself up for failure right from the beginning. Ask yourself, is the parcel suited for agriculture? And if so, how suitable? The USDA has labeled all the soils to give them capability classes. Class one through class seven. Generally speaking, you will consider class one, two, and three soils better for agriculture. 

Luis Dieguez: I want to stress the importance of contacting your local Soil Conservation District. They can put you in touch with the right people and send you down the right path to getting the needed resources. Jerry's emphasis on the Web Soil Survey is something you can probably find on every Soil Conservation District website. It is a USDA program that's extremely useful.


Beginning Farmer Success Interview Series spotlights and celebrates Maryland farmers, industry professionals, and projects that aim to support Maryland agriculture and Beginning Farmer Success.