HOLTWOOD, Pa. -- "This is one I've never seen until now," said Jeff Graybill as he glanced down at a patch of arugula, the latest cover crop Steve Groff is experimenting with on his farm.

For most of the people touring Groff's farm on Wed., Oct. 28, it was like falling right smack in the middle of a cover crop laboratory. Only this laboratory was a little soggy and very muddy.

More than 100 people showed up for the cover crop field day, which was organized by Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Heavy rains overnight Tuesday and Wednesday morning turned Groff's Cedar Meadow Farm into a big, muddy mess.

But that didn't stop people who had arrived in Pennsylvania from as far away as South Africa from attending the field day, which featured walking tours of the more than 30 species of cover crops at the farm.

Various speakers spoke about the benefits of cover crops and how they can work to improve a cropping system.

They included Jill Clapperton, a Canadian soil scientist, who talked about the "benefits of bio-diversity;" Allan Lill of Norwest Seed in New Zealand, who gave a presentation on cover crops from a global perspective; and Graybill, a Penn State agronomist in Lancaster County, who talked about the use of cover crops on farms that he works with.

Groff has introduced some pretty diverse species of cover crops such as Austrian winter peas, chickling vetch, sunn hemp and phacelia onto his farm. He is also testing the effectiveness of cover crop mixtures, an idea he said has a lot of promise.

"This is just like a bastion of cover crop ideas," he said.

He uses his test plots to see how the various crops perform before incorporating them into his 200 acres of row crops and vegetables.

Groff is ahead of the game when it comes to cover crops, but that doesn't mean he knows everything.

"This year, I'm looking at the seeding rates to see which ones perform well and looking at which ones perform better in the cold and warm weather," he said.

For many people at the meeting, though, coming to Groff's farm was about getting an introduction into a different way of farming.

"We are playing massive catch-up," said Francis Yeatman, an ag advisor and expert on integrated farm systems in South Africa, who made the trip to the U.S. with Clapperton after she recently visited his country for five weeks.

Organic farming, Yeatman said, is just starting to take off in South Africa and he hopes to take some knowledge of cover cropping systems to the 500 or so farmers he works with so they can incorporate it into their systems.

"Everyone wants to share their knowledge. This is worldwide now and we want to start doing it too," he said.

Even though he has known Groff for 10 years and has even provided him with tillage radish seeds, Garth Mulkey, president of G.M.F.I. Quality Seed Production in Monmouth, Ore. had never before made the trek to Groff's farm.

"This is amazing," Mulkey said. "There is nothing like this in Oregon at all."

The dry summer climate in much of Oregon, he said, is not conducive to growing many cover crops because it's hard for seeds to germinate in the summer.

But that hasn't stopped some farmers from researching what could work. "A lot of my customers are just doing research into it. It's hard out there, but there is a lot of interest," he said.

Cristina Clark-Cuadrado, a soil conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service in Adams County, has been to Groff's farm before. This time, she hoped to take some new found knowledge to some of the organic vegetable farmers she works with.

"I love coming here because there is always something different to see," she said.

Tom Murtha, a vegetable farmer from Bucks County, came to the field day with his friend, Tom Cultan, a vegetable farmer from Silver Spring Township in Lancaster County.

They both would like to incorporate some sort of cover cropping into their systems and saw an opportunity Wednesday to learn from the "cover crop guru."

"Part of the reason I came was intrigue," Murtha said. "I like the different mixtures. I think there is a lot of potential for things like tillage radishes where I live."

Recommended for you