No-till and cover crops lead the way

Steve Groff began dabbling with no-till experimentation30 years ago, and then 15 to 20 years ago with covercrops. In both cases he’s been a pioneer. Some of hisfields haven’t been touched by equipment in three decades.

Sunn hemp, a prolific summer producer.

The explanation for his initial exploration was quite simple: Almost all of his 215 acres in Holtwood, Pa., are at a 3 to 17 percent slope. He had to do something to eradicate erosion through runoff, and at those angles, the erosion was easier to observe.

“I didn’t like what I saw in my own fields,” Groff says. “It would rain, and I would have to close some fields, especially before harvest, and that wasn’t right.”

Tillage Radish’s root breaks up compacted soil.

In the process of saving his own Lancaster County operation, Cedar Meadow Farm, he’s partnered with businessman David Weaver, of Robesonia, Pa., as co-owners of Tillage Radish, a registered trademark of their company, Green Tillage, LLC. They’ve sold tillage radish seed for six years, but started the larger-scope company a year ago in an effort to spread the word – and the seed – for the cover crop they believe increases cash crop yields by improving soil and water quality.

In this past year alone, their sales of cover crop seed have more than doubled. They’re selling to hundreds of customers and cultivating distributors, while still selling directly to farmers who don’t have a nearby distributor.

While Tillage Radish is the flagship seed and cover crop, they also grow, harvest and sell other cover crop seed, largely sunn hemp, hairy vetch and blue lupins. From those selections, Groff says he’s come to learn the value of the radish, and has chosen it to lead the charge for educating the agricultural world.

In that regard, he’s also just launched another company, Cover Crop Solutions, a separate business as a clearinghouse for research and education, as he works to turn his own farm into a research center for cover crops. Among a host of advantages, he’s come to realize the business benefit of having an agricultural specialty.

“It’s a very popular topic right now,” Groff says. “Relatively speaking, farmers are aware of the benefits [of cover crops], but a lot of them are asking questions, mostly about how to apply the use of cover crops to their own farms.”

Among the common questions he gets are: What if I don’t have the time to plant cover crops? Is it too expensive? Or simply, What should I plant? He addressed many of these in a two-day event last October that he billed as Cover Crop Field Day, a 16-year tradition.

“Cover crops will work anywhere,” Groff says. “But they need to be adapted to the given locale.” Tillage radish is so popular, particularly in wet fields, and in so many other conditions, because its root breaks up compacted soil, and when the ground opens up, it becomes more “mellow,” he says.

“What’s the value?” Groff asks. “Better cash crops,” he answers.

The cornerstone of his system is maintaining a permanent cover of crop residues and cover crops on the fields so there’s something constantly living in the soil. Vegetables and other cash crops are then seeded or transplanted into the organic mulch in the spring.

Radish no-till, Groff says, is quite literally a “growing business, but all of cover cropping is increasing, and will for a while, as more and more farmers realize the reduction in the use of synthetic fertilizer (and increase in natural weed control) it results in, as just one advantage,” he says.

Changing the status quo

Faced with that uphill battle, in the early 1980s Groff began hearing about no-till. He rented a no-till planter, and by the third year he already began noticing his soil was becoming more mellow, or softer.

Conventional farmers, however, would say that if you didn’t till, the ground would go hard. “True – if that’s what you’re used to,” he says.

Instead, Groff rationalized that part of the battle for better soil is better soil management techniques. By the late ’80s, he was entirely committed to no-till, except for his vegetable plots. “At first, I didn’t think you could do it with vegetables,” he says.

Eventually, he piloted a no-till vegetable transplanter from the Keystone Soil and Water Conservation Society to promote, and soon after manufactured his own. By 1996, the entire farm was in no-till. His tomato crop was the last one he converted.

“Then, I started spreading the news and talking about it,” Groff says.

A transplant cultivator cuts into the residue about 6 inches, double discs an opening in front of a shortened transplant shoe, then a closing wheel applies down pressure at an aggressive angle to close the plot.

Initially, he says no-till was a source of amusement for traditional farmers, a “we’ll-see-if-that-works” approach; but there were also some who were really interested. Even Groff admits that his tomatoes weren’t immediately successful, at least not compared to using raised beds or planting into black plastic, both proven strategies to generate early tomato production.

Cedar Meadow Farm’s fields

Groff plants 2 acres of tomatoes in 13 Haygrove high tunnels, and also plants 5 acres worth into no-till fields of hairy vetch, rye and clover.

All totaled of his 215 acres, other than the 7 acres of tomatoes, he plants 40 acres of tillage radish for seed production, 5 acres of hairy vetch for seed production, 40 acres of sweet corn, 30 acres of pumpkins and winter squash, 40 acres of soy beans, 7 acres of alfalfa grass hay, 10 acres of feed corn and 40 acres of wheat.

For his own cover plantings, he mixes seed, planting a blend of as many as 20 different cover crops, though tillage radish is in each. “It’s my foundation,” Groff says. “I recommend starting with tillage radish, and then mixing in.”

There’s a distinct advantage to gradual mixing, he says. Since soil is a living organism, planting just one or two cover or cash crops doesn’t fully awaken all the living properties and organisms in that field. The variety wakes up the largest number of critters over time. The benefit is most noticeable in the gradual reduction of even the amount of seed needed to reseed each successive year. “There’s a systematic effort when you have various plants growing together,” Groff says. “But this is a new concept to a lot of farmers.”

Raymond Weil, professor of soil science in the department of environmental science and technology at the University of Maryland, has used Cedar Meadow Farm for experimentation with graduate students since the mid-’90s. In fact, he introduced tillage radish to Groff, though Weil continues to call it forage radish. He uses Groff’s seed.

“Steve does great work pioneering new no-till techniques,” Weil says.

Others always ask Groff what university he graduated from. “I tell them that I’m still in school,” he says. “I’m learning all the time.”

For each geographic area, you almost need a prescription for successful no-till practice. Groff can teach each farmer the basics, but he also needs to teach farmers to think for themselves so they can tweak the basics for their own farms. “We’re all working together on it, but if we don’t take care of the soil, it won’t be around forever,” he says.

For the time being, Groff says he’s only scratched the surface of cover crops. “We want to be the leaders, but with Tillage Radish we have really found a foothold,” he says. “It’s here to stay. It’s not a fad. We don’t even know the potential of it all, but it’s all leading to an exciting future.”

As for his present, never in his wildest dreams did he think he’d ever become part scientist, part businessman and part educator, but his interest was always more than just that his crops would grow: “I wanted to know how they were growing,” Groff says. “I guess you could say I was always a student of the soil.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.