At A Glance
Allen Matthews and family
Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania
Summary of Operation
• Peppers, sweet
corn, pumpkins, gourds and other specialty crops on
• 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
Specialty crops prized by chefs and grocery stores in
Pittsburgh contribute greatly to the Matthews family’s
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
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 in profits.
“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
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 food system.
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
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 days.
“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 partners.
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
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,”
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,” he says.
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,”
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