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Agricultural Research Service

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Despite soil-parching drought, green sweet-corn plants tower above protective mulch in cornfield.

So Far, This Corn Defies the Drought

By Don Comis
August 11, 1999

Despite soil-parching drought, green sweet-corn plants tower six feet above protective organic mulch in a cornfield in Beltsville, Md. Nearby, corn planted in bare soil won't be worth harvesting. Both fields are at the Beltsville (Md.) Agricultural Research Center (BARC), part of the Agricultural Research Service, USDA's chief scientific agency.

Key to sustaining the corn through the drought is hairy vetch, a legume grown as a cover crop. The vetch--killed before researchers planted the corn--forms a dense mat. It helps rain or irrigation water seep in rather than flow across fields and erode the soil. The mulch also slows evaporation and supplies natural nitrogen fertilizer.

The 7,000-acre BARC now uses hairy vetch to grow much of the corn needed for its livestock. The researchers have already developed vetch systems for tomatoes--now being adopted by some growers--and are testing similar cover crops with peppers, cantaloupes, snap beans and other vegetables.

Organic mulch is vital to the center's program in sustainable agriculture--that is, farming in ways both economical and environmentally friendly, and relying on renewable, on-farm resources.

That's why biodiesel is the newest contribution to Beltsville's seven-year-old sustainable farming program. Beginning this month, biodiesel, a mix of 20 percent soybean oil and 80-percent regular diesel fuel, will power all farm and road crew diesel vehicles on the center's 6,000-acre east side. Researchers will compare the two fuels for engine performance and wear. The program is part of a federal effort to reduce reliance on petroleum while creating new markets for U.S. crops. A fact sheet on the center's biodiesel use is on the web at:


Scientific contact: Ronald F. Korcak, ARS Beltsville Area Office, Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville, Md., Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5193, fax (301) 504-5863,

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