At A Glance
Steve and Cheri
Cedar Meadow Farm
Summary of Operation
alfalfa, soybeans, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers
and pumpkins — in combination with annual
cover crops — on 175 acres
• 70 head of steers
• Small bison herd
Steve Groff confronted a rolling landscape subject
to severe erosion when he began farming with his
father, Elias, after graduating from high school.
He and his father regularly used herbicides and
insecticides, tilled annually or semi-annually
and rarely used cover crops. Like other farmers
in Lancaster County, they fretted about the effects
of tillage on a hilly landscape that causes an
average of 9 tons of soil per acre to wash away
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 59 to 61
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
More Erosion Woes: Steve Groff uses a combination
of cover crops to control weeds and disease in his
Tired of watching two-feet-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, his wife, Cheri, and their three children live on the
farm that was purchased by his grandfather in 1935. Groff’s
father, Elias, was born in the farmhouse where Steve and his
family are now living. Elias, who raises about 70 steers,
also does all of the marketing of the cash crops.
Steve Groff started small with what he now proudly calls his
“permanent cover cropping system” — a rotation
heavy on ground covers and reliant upon no-till planting.
He decided to experiment with ways to slow the erosion, partly
because Lancaster County soil is among the best in the country
and partly because the soil washed — via the Susquehanna
River — into the Chesapeake Bay.
In the early 1980s, Groff began using no-till methods to plant
corn on 15 acres with a no-till corn planter he rented from
the Lancaster County Conservation District. Within a few years
he noticed small improvements from planting without plowing,
but the true soil-saving began in 1991 when Groff began growing
winter cover crops and no-till planting his cash crops into
a thick vegetative residue.
The new system keeps his ground covered all year. In the process,
he has greatly reduced erosion, improved soil quality and
knocked back both weeds and insects. Moreover, his vegetable
and grain yields have improved.
Focal Point of Operation —
No-till and research
Steve Groff raises grain and vegetables every year, but his
soil shows none of the degradation that can occur with intensive
cropping. Groff mixes cash crops such as corn, soybeans, broccoli,
tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins with cover crops and a unique
no-till system that has kept some of his farm soil untouched
by a plow for more than 20 years.
Groff’s system — which has drawn thousands of
visitors to his farm, many of them to his popular summer field
days — has made him nationally known as an innovator.
Each year, he is a popular lecturer at sustainable agriculture
events and conferences, and he has been recognized with numerous
honors, including the 1999 national No-Till Innovator Award
and a Farmers Digest “most influential person”
In the fall, Groff uses a no-till seeder to plant a combination
of rye and hairy vetch cover crops. After trying different
cover crops combinations, Groff adopted this pair because
he likes their varied benefits, such as complementary root
and vegetative structures that literally hold on to soil.
He lets the crops grow about 5 feet tall, then knocks down
the thick mass of plants each spring using a specially designed
rolling chopper. The machine, which flattens and crimps the
cover crops, provides a thick mulch. Then, Groff uses a special
no-till vegetable transplanter designed at Virginia Tech to
set vegetable transplants directly into the residue blanketing
The system, which slows erosion, breaks up soil compaction
and reduces weeds, has brought interest from growers as far
away as Oregon. With the right equipment and a commitment
to experimenting with cover crops, other farmers can adopt
no-till, says Groff, who also has observed less insect pressure
from such persistent, tomato-damaging pests as Colorado potato
“I believe that any system has to be profitable for
the farmer to be sustainable for the long term,” Groff
says. “Environmental responsibility should be carried
out to the best of the producer’s ability in relation
to the knowledge and experience he or she has.”
Although Groff is happy with his system, he continues to conduct
research and open his farm to researchers interested in documenting
the benefits of no-till systems. Scientists with the University
of Maryland and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service
have conducted various experiments on Groff’s farm over
the last several years to take advantage of the ability to
test cover crops in an actual farm setting.
Groff himself has received two SARE grants to test new growing
methods. In one trial, he found that planting corn in narrowly
spaced rows not only reduced weed competition and controlled
erosion, but also increased yields. In a more recent project,
Groff studied the economic and environmental impacts of growing
processing tomatoes in a no-till system compared with the
same crop raised conventionally.
“I don’t think there are shortcuts to sustainability
without the collaboration of researchers, networking with
other farmers, and thoroughly studying the feasibility of
an unfamiliar practice,” Groff says.
Economics and Profitability
While conquering erosion was his first goal, Groff also concentrated
on how to make more profit per acre. The cover crops allowed
Groff to cut his use of insecticides and herbicides. Total
costs for all pesticides used on the vegetable and crop farm
has dropped from $32 an acre 10 years ago to $17 an acre today,
a figure averaged over three years. Although the initial cost
of cover crop seed and establishment added an expense, that
cost is offset by the nitrogen contribution from legumes,
soil retention and increased soil tilth.
University of Maryland researchers documented significant
corn yield increases in Groff’s long-term no-till acreage.
In one experiment during a drought year, they found that soils
with more than 15 years of no-till and cover crops produced
109 bushels of corn per acre, whereas a field with only four
years of no-till and cover crops produced 76 bushels per acre.
Groff found in one test that planting corn in narrow rows
increased per-acre profit on corn silage by $57 and per-acre
grain profits by $30 an acre. In his research project on processing
tomatoes, Groff planted 20 acres in his no-till system and
compared that to yields from another grower who planted conventionally
grown processing tomatoes. The results: The neighbor harvested
21.3 tons of processing tomatoes per acre, while Groff finished
the season with 23.7 tons per acre. Perhaps more significant,
Groff’s seasonal input costs for the plot totaled $281,
while the neighbor spent $411.
“No till is not a miracle, but it works for me,”
Groff says. “I’m saving soil, reducing pesticides
and increasing profits.”
Some of Groff’s slopes are as steep as 17 percent. Thanks
to his no-till system, his annual erosion losses remain just
a fraction of the county’s average. Groff likes to show
a videotape he shot during a 1999 hurricane that contrasts
muddy storm water pouring off a neighbor’s field to
small, clear rivulets draining slowly off his fields.
Twenty years ago, Groff’s farm attracted the typical
array of pests. And although he first began using no-till
and cover crops to minimize erosion, he soon found enormous
benefits in the continual fight against insect pests and weeds.
“I have yet to use any insecticide for Colorado potato
beetle,” Groff says of the vegetable pest that commonly
plagues tomatoes. “They don’t like the cover crop
mulch.” The mulch also seems to stall early tomato blight
by keeping the soil-borne disease organisms from splashing
Cover crop legumes like hairy vetch fix nitrogen, minimizing
the need for commercial fertilizer. Researchers report that
soil in Groff’s long-term no-till fields have 5.8 percent
organic matter, compared to a neighbor’s fields that
has just 2.7 percent. They also found that the longer he practiced
no-till, the lower the soil’s bulk density, giving the
soil greater porosity for root growth and air and water movement.
Less compaction, combined with Groff’s permanent vegetative
residue, helps retain moisture, especially important during
droughts. Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic suffered months
of record drought in 1999, but Groff’s soils soaked
up nearly every drop of rain that did fall and, when he irrigated,
the water was used more efficiently.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Groff spends more time with his family during the growing
season because he has eliminated tillage passes normally done
prior to planting.
Neighbors seem to really enjoy Groff’s small herd of
bison, which they occasionally visit, but Groff thinks the
community appreciates even more his overall commitment to
improving the way he and others farm. In 1999, Groff was one
of five featured farmers in a national PBS documentary, “Land
of Plenty, Land of Want,” which shone a positive spotlight
on Lancaster County.
“I think the community feels a sense of pride in the
way I take care of the soil and the environment as a whole,”
Groff says. “They seem to appreciate the role I play
in being a positive influence on this.”
Groff also draws hundreds of visitors to his annual summer
field day, racking up 1,325 visitors by the end of the year
2000. Although it is a lot of work, Groff enjoys opening others’
eyes to what is possible. “I get the satisfaction that
lots of people are exposed to an alternative agriculture and
a hope that I can influence farmers to take steps toward greater
sustainability,” he says.
Groff recommends that farmers form broad goals to improve
soil and reduce pest pressures. Those goals could encompass
using cover crops, practicing crop rotation, and minimizing
field operations, tillage and use of pesticides.
“Erosion takes away your very best soil!” Groff
says. “It’s your surface soil with the highest
fertility that goes ‘down the drain’ during a
rainstorm. If you farm land that is susceptible to erosion,
controlling it should be your top priority.”
Using fertilizer properly to enhance the soil is key. “A
good approach is to feed the soil, rather than feed the plant,”
he says. “A good soil will grow healthy crops. Don’t
overdo it with fertility amendments as they are a waste and
can be a pollutant.”
As would anyone who truly wishes to stay innovative, Groff
continues to fine tune his system and adapt it to other crops.
In 2001, that will include watermelon, cantaloupe, fiber crops
and gourds in addition to his staples.
“I’m always planning to research new strategies,
because I never expect to obtain the ideal,” he says.
--Photograph by Barry L. Runk/Grant Heilman Photography,