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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Farmer Takes Cover Cropping to the Next Level

August 18, 2011 |

For the 21st century farmer, crop choices are much more than a simple sum of projected annual yields: farmers have to think about how to get the most out of their acres, and how to prevent precious topsoil from washing away. Steve Groff of Cedar Meadow Farms is involved in efforts to find sustainable alternatives that will help to conserve topsoil and precious resources over time.

Groff farms about 225 acres of land in Martic Township, part of the heavily agrarian Lancaster County area in southeast Pennsylvania. A third-generation farmer, Groff has been experimenting with sustainable farming for over 30 years. What he’s found is that cover crops, crop rotation, and a few other key practices can make all the difference in lowering the need for external nutrients and reducing soil erosion and runoff. That last item is extremely important in places like Martic, where the nearby Susquehanna River runs down to empty out into the Chesapeake Bay.

A permanent cover cropping system

In Lancaster County, local officials have been working on solving the problem of runoff into waterways for years. Groff says this is a large part of what got him to start working on a more sustainable model in the 1980s. “My motto is: leave the land better than you found it,” he says. His foray into sustainability began with employing the no-till method to control soil erosion. He then made the decision to incorporate cover crops to further improve the soil. For reference, cover crops are crops that are planted for purposes of managing soil quality, increasing soil fertility and water quality, reducing erosion and runoff, and controlling pests, weeds and diseases.

Groff’s efforts led him to pioneer what he calls the ‘Permanent Cover Cropping System,’ which utilizes no-tillage, cover crop, and effective crop rotation practices as a way to increase profits, enhance soil and water quality, and reduce pesticides.  Key to the success of the system according to Groff’s website “is maintaining a permanent cover of crop residues and cover crops on the soil surface and having something living in the soil at all times.” This consistent crop cover aids in weed control, reduces erosion, increases nutrients in the soil and improves water quality.

Tillage Radish®

One cover crop that Groff uses in his system and also sells and markets to growers through his company Cover Crop Solutions, LLC is called Tillage Radish®. Groff calls the radish a “secret weapon” in efficient agriculture. While the broad taproot penetrates deep into the soil and reduces the effects of soil compaction, Groff says, the finer roots absorb elements like nitrogen and aid in water management.

As part of his efforts to find sustainable methods to build up his soil, Groff began experimenting with Tillage Radish® as a cover crop in 2001 along with Dr. Ray Weil, professor of environmental science and technology at the University of Maryland. Groff noticed that using the Tillage Radish improved planting conditions for his corn, a “hungry” crop that benefits from the kinds of minerals that the radish leaves behind. Research done by University of Maryland on using Tillage Radish, or forage radish, as a cover crop indicates that corn yield increases can be expected after using the radishes the previous fall.

A soil missionary

While the benefits of Groff’s cover cropping methods appeal to many farms in watershed areas, especially those with the right economies of scale for this kind of production, he says not all farmers are as receptive to the idea of upsetting their traditional crop cycles. Although Groff still farms corn and soybeans, as well as pumpkins, wheat and two acres of tomatoes, much of his land is “in research” and he spends a good deal of his time training others in cover cropping, something he has found immensely valuable in his own farming and that he believes can help many of today’s farmers comply with tighter regulations and conserve more of what they use on an annual basis.

“I’m like a soil missionary,” says Groff. He concedes that his outreach to farmers also includes explaining some of the main challenges involved in using his cover cropping methods. One, he says, is the time spent planting. Another is the up-front cost. Groff admits farmers “buy on value” for cover crops, and that the initial investment might not always seem attractive.

He’s also found some resistance in parts of the Midwest, where corn and soybeans are the norm. “They laugh you out of the room,” says Groff, who notes that, although it’s not always an easy sell, effective cover crops and crop rotation cycles are catching on in many parts of the farming community.

“Cover crops may not pay every year,” he says. “But you have some years where you can quadruple your value.”

Groff says the growing appeal of this more complex and efficient farming method keeps him busy traveling to conferences around the country explaining to growers how to get the most out of the land and limit the waste in crop cycles. With so much new emphasis on good stewardship of farmland, and a new push toward sustainable agriculture, Groff is confident that his past work and current research will continue to pay dividends in the future.

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