Profile: Allen Matthews
Profitable Rotation, Cover Crops Reduce Erosion on Hilly Farm
|A SARE producer grant helped Allen Matthews, pictured with wife Martha, daughter Alissa and son Adam, prove that a new vegetable and grain rotation incorporating cover crops earns $848 more per acre. |
– Photo by Rich Fee, Successful Farming
When Pennsylvania grower Allen Matthews received a federal conservation plan that spelled out a seven-year rotation of vegetables, small grains and hay, he was dismayed. The rotation, 80-feet-wide contour strips on his steeply sloped farm, seemed both unprofitable and bad for his erodible soil.
Rather than concede, Matthews decided to research the alternatives. In 1996, he received a SARE grant to test whether growing three years of vegetables – peppers, pumpkins and sweet corn intercropped with cover crops – followed by a year of clover, would control erosion. Growing high-value vegetable crops more frequently than grains and hay would earn greater profits, and Matthews wanted to measure how much.
“The seven-year rotation would have allowed us to grow vegetables only once every seven years, and we’re a vegetable farm!” he said. “What led us into on-farm research was practicality: We wanted to keep our farm operating.”
With help from his local soil conservation district and NRCS field staff, Matthews created a five-acre test on the hillside of his 150-acre farm near Pittsburgh. On half the slope, he grew 80-feet-wide strips of the crops designated in the seven-year plan. On the other, he grew vegetables in narrow rows inter-seeded with three types of clover.
To measure soil loss, they dug diversion ditches midway down the slope and at the bottom. The ditches caught soil and collected runoff on the 15-percent grade.
The findings were significant. Matthews’ soil loss on his alternative rotation reduced erosion, measuring just 10 percent of what NRCS allows on farms. “We demonstrated that by doing alternative practices, we could still use the four- year rotation,” he said.
Matthews planted peppers in narrow double rows, seeding clover in between as a living mulch. Not only does the clover blanket the soil and reduce erosion, but it also shades out weeds and fixes nitrogen. He allows the field to remain in the cover crop for the subsequent year. Then they plant sweet corn.
After keeping records of labor and input costs, Matthews discovered he earned $848 per acre more in the “sustainable” plots, which, when multiplied by the 2.5-acre test plot over five seasons, totaled $10,000.
“It really clarified the profit per acre for different crops,” he said. “After our records showed us how intense [the labor requirements are for] sweet corn compared to pumpkins and peppers, we tripled our pumpkin acreage.”
Matthews also credits the research project with pointing the family toward direct- marketing their produce. Assembling records of costs and returns pointed out how little he earned in the wholesale market. “We’d drive three hours, round-trip praying they’d buy something so we’d get something out of it,” he recalled. Now the family retails their crops at their farm as well as Pittsburgh-area restaurants, farmers markets and grocery stores, much of it through a farmer marketing cooperative.
Editor’s note: Today, Matthews’ father and brother manage most of the production while Allen Matthews is “on leave” from his farm, acting as research coordinator at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Vermont. His main role is to advise farmers about starting alternative enterprises.