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Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA
  POINT OF VIEW:

Steve Groff, farmer


"Some of my fields have not been tilled in any fashion for about 15 years. The reason I got away from plowing the soil was because I saw too much soil erosion. My soil was washing away when we had rain and, since soil is my number one asset, I want to try to manage it in such a way to keep my soil in place.

The other thing that the cover crops have done for us is being able to reduce our insecticides and our fungicides in our vegetable crops. We've done some testing comparing the conventional versus no-till tomatoes, and on our farm where we've got about a 10 percent yield increase. And we've been able to consistently get increased yields ever since we've been able to do this.

I'm the third generation on this farm and I'm really proud of that, to be able to continue on the tradition of agriculture that has been in our family. And my mission or my goal in life, in regards to farming, is to be able to leave the soil in better condition than when I found it."


In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, people work the land according to a different set of practices than today's modern farmers. Here, sunrise usually signals the start of a work day. Steve and Elias Groff's day begins with a leisurely cup of coffee. It's a quiet moment in their busy schedules. A time to discuss the day's activities.

Fifth and sixth generation Mennonite farmers, Steve and his father are deeply attached to the land. Their 175 acre vegetable farm is located in the gently rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania. Lancaster County is a community grounded in a strong work ethic dating back more than 250 years — to the time when Amish and Mennonite immigrants came from Europe in search of religious freedom.

Mennonite farmers in Lancaster County

Mennonite farmers in Lancaster County


Their way of life has changed very little over the years. The more orthodox Amish cling to a life-style abandoned by the modern world. They do not drive cars and use mules and horses to pull their plows. The more liberal Mennonites rely on more contemporary means of transportation. Both see themselves as the custodians of one of the most productive non-irrigated counties in the United States.

Reminiscent of the dust bowl days, each year more than four million tons of Lancaster County's richest earth are washed away into nearby streams and rivers.

Once, these farms averaged sixteen inches of the best topsoil in the world. Now, it's barely eight inches. The rest lies somewhere on the bottom of the Susquehanna River or the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the loss takes place during severe rainstorms. It's not uncommon for an inch of rain to fall in less than thirty minutes. The damage on most farms is both dramatic and costly.

The devastating cycle of topsoil loss does not exist on the Groff farm. When Steve joined the family business, he brought dramatic change. Instead of plowing the land, each Fall he plants a cover crop that is rolled onto the land to form a protective carpet.

Called no-till farming, Steve never exposes the soil to the elements. In the final step of the process, a specially designed tractor places the seeds for the vegetable crops directly into this natural mulch. The soil is never turned up. Several months later the land is ready to be harvested.

In a very real sense the Groff's no-till farm is an island of sustainable agriculture in a sea of doubters.

This is when Steve Groff's faith in no-till farming is justified. When his grandfather started farming tomatoes on this land, the yield was 15 tons to the acre. Today the farm's tomato yield is 40 tons per acre and, equally important, soil erosion has been cut by over 90 percent.

Elias Groff takes his tomatoes to market

Elias Groff takes his
tomatoes to market

In a very real sense the Groff's no-till farm is an island of sustainable agriculture in a sea of doubters. Convincing Steve's father was no easy task. Elias is a practical man who handles marketing for the farm. At first he was skeptical about no-till.

Elias is completely won over. He sees their yields rise even in the dry years. He sees the benefits of using less chemicals. And he sees that it can be profitable. Several times a week Elias brings his produce to a local market. Today, as on most days, he does well at the auction. It's a validation not only of his son's no-till farming but of a family's persistence.

There are no global views on the minds of these Pennsylvania farmers. No overseas markets for their produce. Yet, how they meet their economic needs while respecting their deeply held environmental beliefs speaks volumes to people all over the world.

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