A recent drive along the eastern U.S. shore opened my eyes to the dramatic acceptance of cover crops and no-till among farmers in this area in boosting incomes and protecting the environment.

In mid-November, I was part of a photo workshop held at the Chincoteague wildlife refuge, which is located across the Maryland state line in Virginia. I’d flown into Baltimore and drove 3 1/2 hours south through the Delmarva Peninsula to the island located on the Atlantic Ocean. During the drive, I was amazed to see how no-till and cover crops were the accepted norm among farmers in this area.

1 There were only a few fields of corn that hadn’t been harvested, yet plenty of still-standing soybeans. I assumed most of these soybeans were double-cropped behind wheat or barley, with many beans still not mature as of mid-November.

University of Maryland soil scientist Ray Weil says Delmarva growers harvest corn ahead of full-season beans before combining double-cropped soybeans. Most Delmarva soybeans are later-maturing varieties than beans in the Midwest. Double-crop beans are no-tilled the same day wheat or barley is harvested, around July 1.

2 The other big surprise I noticed during the drive south from Baltimore was that corn fields were “greening up” with recently seeded wheat, barley or cover crops. There were no signs of intensive tillage that would leave the ground bare, as fields had a growing crop to protect against winter soil and wind erosion and costly runoff.

Maryland farmers receive up to $75 per acre in government funding to fall-seed cover crops. To create diversity, eligible cover crop mixes may include 50% cereal grains and 50% radishes or legumes. There’s an added $10 per acre incentive if rye is the only cover crop. Farmers located on the Eastern Shore, which drains into the Chesapeake Bay, can earn as much as $90 per acre by seeding rye on corn ground and not spreading manure until spring.

3 Weil says no-till is pretty much the standard tillage system used by Maryland farmers. “On the Delmarva peninsula, 80% to 90% of the corn, soybeans, wheat and barley acres are no-tilled,” he says.

By far, the biggest surprise to me while driving was not seeing fields with bare soil that can blow away during the winter months. Thanks to the extensive acceptance of cover cropping and no-till among area farmers, it’s an entirely different view than you’ll get while driving in November through most areas of the Corn Belt.