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Cover crops please even Chesapeake Bay crabs

Closeup of Chesapeake crab
ASK A CRAB: Chesapeake crabs may be a blue species, but rising populations suggest they’re happier thanks to cover crops and cleaner waters.
Growing Healthy Soil: Cover crops are key to ‘The Bay’ water quality turnaround evidenced by rising Chesapeake crab and oyster populations.

If you live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, you’ve repeatedly heard about water quality issues over the past 25 years. Everyone knows what you’re talking about when you say “The Bay.” Even if you live outside of “The Bay” watershed, its cleanup efforts are officially seen as a national pilot program for water cleanup and aquatic restoration.

It’s the world’s largest estuary (a partly enclosed coastal body of water in which river water is mixed with seawater). Excessive nitrates, phosphorus and sediment pollutants are easily traced to agriculture, even though farming isn’t totally responsible.

While nutrient management and manure use have been most critiqued over the past few decades, cover crops have been the most influential aspect of change. They directly affect nutrient and manure management.

The good news
Farmers are seeing soil quality differences in their own fields. They’re also finding cover crops pay for themselves.

Lancaster County, Pa., has the watershed’s highest livestock concentration. That’s why its farmers are dead-centered as targets for reducing farm pollutants. More than 60% of the county is cover-cropped and no-tilled. Surprise! Very little of these practices are subsidized anymore. Farmers see the payback directly helping their bottom lines.

The environment benefits, too. Earlier this year, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual report stated that Bay water quality is steady to slightly improving. Our efforts are working!

Farmer meets fisherman
So what are fishermen experiencing now? Previously, they were catching fewer and fewer crabs and oysters, struggling to survive challenges they weren’t responsible for.

To find out, I traveled to Tangier Island in the low Chesapeake’s lower middle to visit a fisherman with a lifelong career of harvesting crabs and oysters. The last 18 miles was on a small 20-passenger ferry.

After spending several hours with him and other fishermen, it was abundantly clear their livelihoods have been improved over the last several years due to less pollution in the “fields” where they harvest crabs and oysters. Daily limits are consistently achieved earlier and their annual catch has risen!

They expressed thanks for what farmers have been doing over the past decades to enhance water quality. But they mentioned there are still areas needing improvement, so the cleanup must go on.

We all live in a watershed, and most of these areas have water quality challenges to varying degrees. Cover crops have proven to be the best “bang for the buck” in addressing them. Our soils are better off as well!

The coach’s closer
Cover crops are a “win-win-win-win.” Farmers, fishermen and environmentalists — and yes, even the crabs — are benefited by this strategic practice. And it’s a strategy that can be farmed throughout the world.

Groff is a cover crop pioneer and innovator who farms on the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Check out his website,

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