Farming operation grows more than corn and beans

By Lynn R. Parks

Pilots flying over the southwest corner of the Allen’s Hatchery cornfield along Hill Road might want to circle over it several times to make sure that their eyes aren’t playing tricks on them. About 25 acres of the 180-acre field have been taken out of production and either planted in grassy strips, wildflowers and trees or devoted to a new wetlands, stream and pond. And that pond, on the southwest corner of the field, is in the shape of a rooster. “I had seen pictures of similar ponds, and really wanted to do this one like a chicken,” said hatchery farm manager Bob Taylor. “We are a poultry company — what better shape for our pond than a chicken?” The rooster pond is fed by a curvy stream that also feeds an adjacent wetland area. Even from the ground, the rooster’s comb, feet and tail feathers are recognizable; Taylor’s plan to outline the comb in red clover, the breast in white daisies and the feet in yellow flowers were undermined last year by dry weather that didn’t allow most of the flower seeds to grow. The whole system, including 25-foot grassy strips along irrigation ditches that cut through the field and wildflowers that fill the field’s corners, is part of the poultry company’s effort to improve the environment, Taylor said. Through state and federal programs, the company has agreed to set aside about 400 of its 2,348 acres for from 10 to 15 years. In addition, its sister company Allen Family Foods has set aside nearly 74 acres. Under government guidelines, that land is planted in trees, grasses and wildflowers to attract wildlife, to control erosion and to encourage cleaner groundwater. Water that is filtered slowly through planted soil retains fewer nutrients — fertilizer compounds like nitrogen and phosphorus that in waterways encourage harmful growths of algae — than water that pours into ditches directly from plowed land. Excess algae in waterways has been connected to fishkills and decreased populations of fish. Most of Allen’s fields are in the Nanticoke River watershed. The state is under federal mandate to decrease nitrogen and phosphorus loads in the river. “We practice farming the most environmentally-friendly way we can,” Taylor said. “If we get attention, we want it to be good attention.” Taylor said that he would like to see more farmers use the set-aside programs. As the land that is set aside usually is poorer producing — it is typically next to woodlands, where shade and poor drainage limit crop production — the money that the farmer is paid by the government about equals what he would get if the land was planted. “It is pretty much a break-even deal,” Taylor said. In addition, planting land along ditches in perennial grasses helps to prevent erosion of topsoil. Such erosion is harmful to the farmer — he loses valuable topsoil — as well as to the environment. Sediment can clog waterways and alter traditional fish breeding grounds. “You take poor land out of production, so you are really increasing your [per acre] yield,” Taylor said. “You are improving the water quality, and helping out wildlife.” Taylor said that whatever farmers are able to do on their own will lessen government mandates requiring good nutrient management. The Delaware’s Nutrient Management Commission was formed in December 1999 to help farmers as well as landscapers and homeowners apply fertilizer so that as little runs off into waterways as possible. All farmers, defined as anyone who applies nutrients to 10 acres or more, will have to be operating under a nutrient management plan by 2007. Farmers operating under a plan are required to keep detailed records regarding nutrient application and to submit an annual report to the state. They have to test their soil to determine the nutrients that it needs and apply those nutrients according to factors such as the type of crop being grown and whether it is irrigated. Driving past an 8-acre farm near Hearn’s Pond that now grows grasses and wildflowers, Taylor pointed out a bright daisy growing in the grasses. “We are all a part of the ecology chain,” he said. “A lot of farmers think that I’m crazy for doing what I’m doing. But I am very proud of what we are doing. I feel as much pride standing on the edge of our wetlands as I do looking over a field of corn.”

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