WILLIAMSTOWN — It's not quite pennies from heaven, but an aerial cover crop-seeding program could make a difference to local farmers challenged by topsoil erosion.
Beginning Wednesday, low-flying helicopters are dropping winter rye grass seed over select farm fields throughout Berkshire County.
The locally distributed seeds are destined for corn fields and will fall while the corn stands tall, said Diane Badeker Petit, the community relations spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service state office.
"It's a pretty fast process," she said. "The seeds are loaded into a hopper that hangs under the helicopter and the helicopter takes off, using a GPS system to apply the seed precisely."
Farms were chosen via an application process, she said.
Farms in Adams, Cheshire, Lanesborough, North Adams, Sheffield, West Stockbridge and Williamstown are participating in the initiative, according to information provided by the conservation service.
The Chenail dairy farm on Luce Road in Williamstown was accepted for a seed drop, said co-owner Wally Chenail.
The 400-acre farm milks about 80 head of cattle a day and grows corn as well as squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables, Chenail said. He and his brother Christopher have been running the farm for about 12 years. The farm is 100 years old and was started by Chenail's great-grandfather Joseph Chenail.
"The seed provides a cover crop, and that provides an organic base that helps fertilizer and manure stay in place after the corn is down," Chenail said. "The point of using the helicopter and doing it now, while the corn is standing, is to give the seed time to get into the ground and sprout. Even if the seeds remain on the ground at first, anything driven over the area will push the seed into the ground."
Waiting until after the cornfields are chopped and barren to lay seed for a cover crop is a challenge for New England farmers, whose corn crops are cut down at a time when the growing season is fading fast.
Putting seed into cold ground at a time when freezing temperatures are not uncommon means less likelihood of a good cover crop, according to Chenail and Cheshire farmer Teddy Jayko.
Jayko's farm is expected to be seeded as well. Jayko owns about 100 milk cows and has 70 heifers, which are young female cows not yet ready to be milked, that will be milk cows when they mature. His fields host corn as well as hay and he is a beekeeper with 26 hives.
"The early seeding while the corn is up is what it makes it beneficial to us," Jayko said. "The biggest thing is saving some topsoil. When you do it like this, early and from the air, the seed gets a chance to germinate and once the corn comes off, there's a cover crop and it's green already. Winter rye survives the winter and has a good root base to hold topsoil."
Jayko and Chenail each already have hundreds of pounds of seed at their farms and are waiting for the helicopters to arrive. Both said there is little notice when the seeding will occur.
There are numerous factors affecting the seeding schedule, including weather, said Badeker Petit.
The helicopters dropping the seed fly fairly close to the ground and community members should be aware that the seeding is occurring for the next few weeks, she said.