Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

Steve Groff raises vegetables, grains, and cover crop seeds on his 215-acre farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but his soil shows none of the degradation that can occur with intensive cropping. Mixing cash crops such as corn, alfalfa, soybeans, and tomatoes with cover crops in a unique no-till system, Groff has kept portions of his farm untouched by a plow for more than two decades.

“No-till is a practical answer to concerns about erosion, soil quality, and soil health,” says Groff, who won a national no-till award in 1999. “I want to leave the soil in better condition than I found it.”

Groff confronted a rolling landscape pocked by gullies when he began farming with his father after graduating from high school. They regularly used herbicides and insecticides, tilled annually or semiannually, and rarely used cover crops. Like other farmers in Lancaster County, they ignored the effects of tillage on a sloped landscape, which causes an average of 9 tons of soil per acre to wash into the Chesapeake Bay every year.

Tired of watching 2-foot-deep crevices form on the hillsides after every heavy rain, Groff began experimenting with no-till to protect and improve the soil. “We used to have to fill in ditches to get machinery in to harvest,” Groff says. “I didn’t think that was right.”

Groff stresses, however, that switching to no-till alone isn’t enough. He has created a new system, reliant on cover crops, rotations, and no-till, to improve the soil. He’s convinced such methods contribute to better yields of healthy crops, especially during weather extremes.

He pioneered what he likes to call the “Permanent Cover” cropping system when the Pennsylvania chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society bought a no-till transplanter that could plant vegetable seedlings into slots cut into cover crop residue. Groff was one of the first farmers to try it. The slots are just big enough for the young plants and do not disturb the soil on either side. The result: Groff can prolong the erosion-slowing benefits of cover crops. He now owns two no-till planters—one for planting tomatoes, the other for corn and pumpkins—customized with parts and implements from several different equipment companies.

Groff’s no-till system relies on a selection of cover crops and residues that blanket the soil virtually all year. “The amount of acreage I devote to different cover crops every year is really subjective,” he says, noting that he constantly modifies his cropping plans based on field observations, weather conditions, timing considerations, and other factors. In the fall, he uses a no-till seeder to drill a combination of rye and hairy vetch (at seeding rates of 30 and 25 pounds per acre, respectively). He likes the pairing because their root structures grow in different patterns, and the vegetation left behind after killing leaves different residues on the soil surface.

Introduced to forage radish through University of Maryland cover crop research trials hosted at his farm, Groff was so impressed by what he saw that he decided to integrate it into his cover crop combinations. His typical rotations include planting forage radish and oats or forage radish and crimson clover mixtures before sweet corn, and a forage radish–rye–vetch mixture before pumpkins.

Several attributes make forage radish a practical choice for no-till farmers. For example, its taproots can alleviate compaction problems—so much so that Groff now prefers using radishes instead of his deep ripper to loosen soil in his driveways. Complete dieback following hard frost, impressive weed suppression into spring, and relatively rapid nutrient cycling add to forage radish’s appeal.

Upon discovering a few years ago that forage radish cover crop seed was not available locally, Groff decided to grow his own and sell the surplus to other farmers. He has increased his seed production every year in response to the “substantial growing interest” of conventional farmers in cover cropping. He now fills seed orders from farmers across the U.S.

In the spring, Groff uses a rolling stalk-chopper— modified from Midwest machines that chop cornstalks after harvest—to kill overwintering covers. He typically sprays glyphosate at low levels (1/2 pint, or $1 per acre) before rolling to ensure a more complete kill. The chopper flattens and crimps the cover crop, providing a thick mulch. Once it’s flat, he makes a pass with the no-till planter or transplanter.

The system creates a very real side benefit in reduced insect pest pressure. Once an annual problem, Colorado potato beetle damage has all but disappeared from Groff’s tomatoes. Since he began planting into the mulch, he has greatly reduced the spraying of pesticides. The thick mat also prevents splashing of soil during rain, a primary cause of early blight on tomatoes. “We have slashed our pesticide and fertilizer bill nearly in half, compared to a conventional tillage system,” Groff says. “At the same time, we’re building valuable topsoil and not sacrificing yields.”

“No-till is not a miracle, but it works for me,” he says. “It’s good for my bottom line, I’m saving soil, and I’m reducing pesticides and increasing profits.” He emphasizes that benefits from no-till management have developed gradually, along with his experience in handling each field. Knowing when to stay off wet fields and choosing the right crop and cover crop rotations, he says, can help farmers new to no-till avoid potential compaction and fertility problems. “My soils have developed a stability that lets me get away with thingsthat I couldn’t do earlier,” he says. “You earn the right to be out there as your soil gets more stable. Basically, the rules of the game change as the game is played.”

Groff is convinced his crops are better than those produced in soils managed conventionally, especially during weather extremes. His soils foster high levels of earthworm and other biological activity deep in the soil. He promotes his system at annual summer field days that draw huge crowds of farmers and through his informative website.