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Planting green: Eco-friendly farm practices that just make sense

Maryland farmer Trey Hill demonstrates how crops grow in harmony with the environment.

Trey Hill manages a 10,000-acre corn, wheat and soybean farm in Maryland, but if you ask him what his job is, the answer may surprise you. “I am an environmentalist,” he says without apologies.

Farming just a stone’s throw from the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, near four rivers - Sassafras, Chester, Wye and Bohemia - has something to do with Hill’s attitude. The bay has been hit by pollution, and agriculture is partly to blame. But instead of hunkering down, Hill has become proactive and reached out to the environmental groups so many farmers think are the enemy. That changed everything. 

“Going to the environmental groups really helped me learn how other people think,” says Hill, 42, who runs the farm with his father, Herman Hill, Jr., mother, Christy, wife, Cheryl, and 14 employees. “By having those environmental conversations, a lot of that has helped transform the way I farm.”

Now Hill serves on the boards of Shore Rivers, the Hughes Center for Agro ecology, and the Sassafras River Association.

“It’s so much better than just hanging with my own crowd,” he says. “You won’t learn that way.”

Bayer named Hill’s Harborview Farms its first ForwardFarming operation in North America last week. The program is intended to foster dialogue and understanding about how food can be grown in harmony with the environment. Located just two hours outside Washington, D.C., the program provides Hill a chance to showcase his operation’s earth-friendly practices to scores of people, from kids to Congress. 

It’s one way to keep bridging the divide between environmentalists and farmers, he adds.

“Having farmers be transparent, opening their farm to folks, provides a lot more transparency and genuineness,” he says.

Under fire

Several years ago, farmers in the Delmarva region came under fire for polluting the Chesapeake Bay. A fish kill caused a rift between environmentalists and the region’s farmers. Like many, Hill was defensive at first -- but then began to ask questions. 

“I grew up thinking that if you farm, you don’t pollute,” he says. “I needed to learn what I was doing incorrectly. It’s a hard concept to think that the nitrogen would go through the ground, into the aquifer and into the bay 10 or 15 years later.” 

He began working with environmental advocates at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Chester River Association. “I began to realize they weren’t out to get me, they just want to know what’s going on,” he says. “I had to admit, yeah, maybe we do pollute a bit. The question is, how much is an acceptable level? No one has any good numbers on this. But we had to start figuring it out.”

That set Hill on a journey to re-examine every farm practice. He worked with researchers Nick Goeser of NCGA’s Soil Health Partnership, University of Maryland soil guru Raymond Weil, and USDA’s Steve Miersky, who helped installed water filtration and nitrogen leaching plots. Hill adopted no-till, added buffer strips and stopped applying nitrogen in the fall. He started planting cover crops, motivated by a generous $45 (minimum) per acre cost-share program paid by Maryland taxpayers. 

One of his biggest innovations was learning to ‘plant green’ into living cover crops – something that happened almost by accident. Near the end of a wet spring, his lead planting operator had noticed how much smoother the planter worked when planting into living crops compared to nearby rows of cover that had been sprayed and killed off.

“Where he’s planting through the headlands and it’s brown, the seed slot was open and we were getting sidewall compaction,” Hill recalls. “But in the green planting the slot was closing, and the planter was functioning perfectly. We’ve replicated this over the last 10 years, and now we’re 90% planting green because planters just work better.

All of which makes Hill’s foray into soil health somewhat of an epiphany.

“We’re trying to do the right thing for the environment, but for us it was driven by agronomics,” he explains. “A lot of the folks who are coming to this are trying to make it work from the environmental side to appease other people, but we’re finding you don’t have to sacrifice yields; you don’t have to sacrifice planting dates; you don’t have to sacrifice efficiency. We can do all three and still have less nitrogen leaching and cleaner water coming off our fields.”

As land shifts to younger owners, farmers ‘going green’ is just a smart marketing move, he adds. “With younger owners, their priorities are to be greener,” he says. “We want people to be proud to know that we care for the soil for the next generation, that we care about soil health, building organic matter and putting carbon back into the soil.” 

A measure of success

Now Hill measures the success of his operation not just by how many bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat it produces, but by how effectively it helps the waters of the Chesapeake Bay that surround his fields. 

"Everything we do at Harborview Farms has to pass this test," he concludes. “We farm 100% different than we did 10 years ago. If there’s a way to improve your operation to pollute less, why wouldn’t you do it?”

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