When I think of Maryland industries, I often think of blue crabs. However, agriculture is the largest commercial industry in the state, with roughly 350,000 people employed in some aspect of agriculture. The Center for GIS (CGIS) at Towson University is using GIS to help the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) Cover Crop program become more efficient and streamlined in data collection and approval for payments.

Cover Crops

Maryland has 2.0 million acres of farmland, with the majority lying in the north-central part of the State and the upper Eastern Shore. In fact, about one-quarter of the land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is devoted to agricultural production. Repeated plantings of the same crops can lead to soil erosion, nutrient depletion, and runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, leading to pollution.

One way farmers can help to improve soil structure and productivity is by using cover crops. For example, if a farmer grows corn during the summer months, they may grow wheat, rye, or another cold hardy crop during the fall and winter months in the corn fields.

This second planting, or cover crop, recycles unused soil nutrients from the previous summer and protects fields against wind and water erosion. Although this method has been used for generations, environmental concerns regarding the Chesapeake Bay have led to its increased use in Maryland. In fact, it was reported on January 20, 2016 that Maryland farmers planted nearly 500,000 acres using the cover crop program, shattering planting records.

Maryland Cover Crop Program

MDAs Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program helps farmers offset costs associated with planting cover crops by providing them with different grants. Currently, farmers and local soil conservation district officials manually input data that includes location of fields, number of acres, and types of crops planted. Conservation officials also are manually surveying fields for verification and reporting purposes.

GIS Mapping

In 2016, Towson University Center for GIS is helping MDA automate and better track the Maryland Cover Crop Program. Our team is replicating MDA’s business logic and creating a new, web-based system that captures MDA’s workflows, validations, and approvals that are necessary to process applications and generate payments to farmers.

Cover Crop

Sample of Cover Crop Application

The Cover Crops system is built using JavaScript and integrates the mature, open-source libraries Leaflet and Turf for the map and geo-processing components. Maryland’s MD iMAP imagery and USDA field boundary data permit the farmers to navigate to and indicate precisely where they’ve planted their cover crops. Providing farmers access to relevant, up-to-date GIS data yields a much more accurate representation of how the cover crop program is being used, the number and distribution of acres benefiting from the program, and ultimately, facilitating accurate payments.

The move from a paper-based system to a GIS-enabled digital tool:

  • Speeds up the flow, sharing, and approval of information
  • Reduces the workload for the field offices and the MDA cover crop program staff
  • Allows for easier collection of farmer and field data
  • Tracks the approval process online

The new interface is credential-based and allows state- and county-level users to access data in an intuitive, tabbed interface.

  • Applicant information: provides details of the farmer.
  • Application: Whether the farmer is applying for spring or fall certification
  • Approval by MDA: Approval of the application and funding details
  • Fall/Spring Certification: A web-based map that enables the field officers to map the plantings and provide details on the crops planted and methods used in the fields
  • Reporting module: Users can generate various standard and ad hoc program reports

Local field officers are able to:

  • Quickly navigate to and select a farm and tract of land
  • Indicate crop type and planting date
  • Edit the field boundaries to accurately depict the size and dimensions of the farmer’s fields
  • Perform searches based on multiple data sets
  • Zoom, pan, and toggle between maps

As the new GIS-based application gets implemented and becomes fully-functional, the system becomes easier to use as data is kept electronically and farmers can base yearly submissions on any prior year’s data.

Although agriculture was an early adopter of GIS technology, the industry is now using it in ways that weren’t happening just a few years ago. It is rewarding to Maryland’s farmers putting new GIS capabilities to work in a way that supports their stewardship of the land and Maryland’s environment.