At A Glance
Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania
Summary of Operation
sweet corn, pumpkins, gourds and other specialty
crops on 158 acres
• Sells directly to Pittsburgh
grocery stores and restaurants
With a farm located in the hills of western Pennsylvania,
Allen Matthews did not like the prospect of farming
by a recipe dictated by regulations made far away.
His USDA-approved soil conservation plan called
for a seven-year rotation — vegetables followed
by two years of corn, a small grain and three
years of hay. With vegetables more profitable,
Matthews was reluctant to devote only one-seventh
of his acreage to them each year.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 8 to 10
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
options: Specialty crops prized by chefs
and grocery stores in Pittsburgh contribute greatly
to the Matthews family’s bottom line.
Matthews shares the management
of the farm with his extended family. “It’s still
my father’s farm,” Matthews says. “I’m
only 50. We’re definitely generational farmers.”
He grows peppers, sweet corn, pumpkins and gourds with his
brother, John, his father, Harvey, mother, Betty, and all
of the grandchildren. They also raise specialty crops, including
various greens for fresh market and many types of perennials
and herbs for spring sales in their greenhouse.
With support from a Northeast SARE grant in 1992, Matthews
began comparing the seven-year rotation with an alternative
system — peppers, followed by pumpkins, sweet corn,
and then clover. The new four-year rotation that included
three years of vegetables, followed by a year of cover crops,
yielded bountiful results. Matthews found he could reduce
erosion and make more money.
E-mail Matthews at his farm near Pittsburgh, Pa., and you’ll
receive a response with a tag at the bottom that reads: “Imagining
the possibilities.” Matthews and his family have integrated
that concept into an alternative, proactive and productive
farming operation. They focus on digging into the potential
and consequences of growing alternative food.
Focal Point of Operation — Direct marketing
With help from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation
Service and his local soil conservation district, Matthews
created a five-acre, hillside test plot. He cultivated half
using a moldboard plow; the other half he designed in a “sustainable”
construct to grow vegetables in narrow rows, inter-seeded
with three types of clover.
In the alternative rotation, Matthews employed mulch-till,
strip-till and no-till planting instead of moldboard plowing.
He used more integrated pest management techniques and “biorational”
pest controls instead of synthetic pesticides. Finally, he
seeded in narrow — instead of broad — contours,
planting hay and cover crops to block weeds between rows.
To measure erosion, Matthews and the NRCS scientists dug diversion
ditches midway down the slope and at the bottom. These channels
caught soil and measured runoff from the 15-percent grade.
Results were impressive. The sustainable plot lost soil at
a rate 90 percent below what the NRSC deemed allowable. The
“conventional” plot also saw low erosion rates
of less than 1 ton per year, but Matthews measured a big difference
“We made $848 an acre more for the sustainable versus
the conventional rotation,” he says.
Today, Matthews regularly plants peppers in narrow double
rows, then seeds clover 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. After harvesting,
Matthews overseeds clover, then allows the field to remain
in the cover crop for the subsequent year.
In 1997, Matthews further increased income by shifting from
selling vegetables at wholesale and farmers markets to marketing
products directly to grocery stores, chefs and restaurants.
The family’s opening of these new marketing channels
contributed to the formation of The Penn’s Corner Farmer’s
Alliance, a cooperative of 21 growers working with consumers
and chefs to explore the possibilities of food choices, the
impact of selling local food and a vision for the future local
The alliance’s work, simply stated, allows for a farm-to-kitchen
connection. When area restaurants and chefs buy seasonal fruits
and vegetables, consumers benefit from the freshness of locally
grown food while farmers capture a premium price for their
products. Dollars spent on locally grown food can foster a
more healthy and vigorous local economy as a whole.
The Matthews family’s production and marketing practices
are models for the dynamic face of alternative marketing.
“Dad’s on the phone with the grocery stores most
days asking exactly what they would like for their shelf space
that day,” he says. “Small farms cannot compete
unless they have something different to offer.”
Thanks in part to Allen’s work with the Pennsylvania
Association for Sustainable Agriculture, a permanent farmers
market opened in McKees Rocks in early 2000. In conjunction
with Focus on Renewal, a nonprofit, community-based Pennsylvania
social service agency, the market will deliver high-quality
food to the area and jobs for local residents. The Southwestern
Pennsylvania Commission and PASA are working to bring a similar
site to Pittsburgh’s South Side. Matthews acts as a
farmer contact for PASA to develop such sites as “producer
only” markets for the 2001 season.
Economics and Profitability
Matthews was happy to find that the 2.5-acre “sustainable”
rotation he designed to reduce erosion was also much more
profitable than the conventional comparison plot. By keeping
records of labor and input costs, Matthews discovered he earned
much more per acre in the sustainable plots, totaling $10,000
when he multiplied 2.5 acres over five seasons.
Contrary to conventional thinking, close evaluation of hours
of labor and other inputs revealed pumpkins and peppers were
much better money-makers than sweet corn. “Our work
with SARE taught us to keep good records,” he says.
“We have doubled our pumpkins and gourd production in
the last 10 years.”
Meeting the needs of specialty markets with crops like hot
peppers and Indian corn helps the Matthews family increase
sales from the farm. “We sell sweet corn at $2.50 a
dozen and get the same price for 12 corn stalks,” he
says. In a conventional rotation, those stalks are ground
up in the harvester.
Conventional farming using a moldboard plow, or a regular,
four-bottom plow, works the soil at a repetitive depth of
8 to 10 inches. This results in soil compaction, called a
hard pan, Matthews says.
By re-working the same 8 to 10 inches, farmers create a tougher
layer of soil that does not breathe as well, roots and water
cannot penetrate and earthworms cannot aerate. Such soil often
needs more off-farm inputs, like commercial nitrogen.
Instead, Matthews uses a chisel plow that doesn’t disturb
the soil as much. The plow drags through the soil at a depth
of 18 inches, which breaks up plow pans yet leaves residue
on the surface. Matthews also uses a variety of cover crops
to good effect. The cover crops help by adding organic matter
back to the medium. “We are not afraid to fool around
with different cover crops; we’re also trying buckwheat,
rye, oats and hairy vetch,” he says.
Using techniques like integrated pest management, or IPM,
the family has reduced its use of pesticides by 60 percent,
especially with sweet corn. Growing sweet corn means grappling
with worms, like the European corn borer and fall army worm.
These pests come at different times and a traditional approach
to treating for them may mean spraying every four or five
“We walk the rows,” Matthews says. “We don’t
spray when there are no bugs.”
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Farmers like Matthews are working to establish and maintain
an urban-to-rural connection and increase awareness of how
food is produced. For a time, Matthews sold products from
six farmers to the region’s Community Food Bank, which
was then marketed at individual community farm stands. In
the spring of 2000, the Penn’s Corner Farm Cooperative
was born and now handles all sales. The Matthews Farm is a
member of this co-op, a joint project coordinated by the food
bank, with PASA and Penn’s Corner Farm Cooperative as
As a member of PASA, Matthews has become very involved in
food systems issues in his area. PASA formed an agricultural
committee that coordinates county planning staff, agricultural
extension offices, conservation districts and, of course,
farmers; meetings are quarterly and highlight farming’s
contribution to the area’s economy. “The farmers
have a voice in the planning process now,” he says.
“It’s interesting to see how people value our
input. Within the last three years, we’ve gone from
being out of the loop, to being part of the ‘food system.’
Matthews was buoyed when the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
began issuing coupons exclusive to local farmers markets.
Another program brings farm stands to poor neighborhoods.
The two work in concert for a mutually supportive system.
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued $220,000
for a program that helps seniors shop at farmers markets in
five large urban areas like Pittsburgh. Matthews says the
Farmer’s Alliance is working to expand it in Pennsylvania
next year. “In my mind, this was the best way the department
spent their money,” he says. “This work benefits
the seniors, local farmers and local economies.”
Matthews says direct-market farmers should start small, then
find other farmers doing something similar who will share
their knowledge and experience. “When I get a chance
to sit down and talk to anyone, especially farmer to farmer,
I usually learn something,” he says.
Information from farmers and ranchers will nearly always prove
valuable, he says. “Someone, maybe yourself, may be
thinking of doing something similar. We all share excitement
about what we are doing, and what we can learn from each other.”
Matthews is witnessing tremendous demand for direct-marketed
specialty vegetables produced with an eye to conservation,
but few farmers to supply it. He is equally spirited about
creating opportunities and the power of sharing.
“It will be nice when we can get people to understand,
as the years go by and we increase the amount of money we
receive for our goods and services, that farmers are also
increasing the time they spend on networking and marketing,”
Much of the Pittsburgh-area work is in its infancy, but the
groundwork has been laid to build support while increasing
sales and planning for the long-term. “A year ago, the
alliance sold $40 worth of strawberries. At the end of this
year, it was $40,000,” he says.
As for the Matthews family, profitable farming doesn’t
just mean produce more. “Our goal is to plant one third
less and double our profit,” he says.
Matthews also emphasizes the importance of making opportunities
for future generations to farm. “The Matthews family
supports the preservation of farms,” he says. “We
want to provide opportunities for our kids, nieces and nephews
to farm if they so choose. If that opportunity is not there,
then this farm may be split up like many of the rest.”
--Photograph by Rich Fee/Successful Farming