Models for the Future: McCleaf's Orchard

McCleaf’s Orchard is a fifth generation farm originally founded in 1888 and located in Biglerville, Pennsylvania.
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McCleaf's Orchard

McCleaf’s Orchard is a fifth generation farm originally founded in 1888 and located in Biglerville, Pennsylvania.

The 52 acre farm produces various types of fruits and vegetables each year--apples, peaches, pears, berries, tomatoes, asparagus, and onions--just to name a few. The owners, Corey and Vicky McCleaf, focus heavily on soil health by using various cover crops on a yearly basis to maintain a sustainable soil. They also use IPM methods and stay up-to-date on agricultural innovations to provide the best quality produce. McCleaf's Orchard is Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified and a Pennsylvania Preserved Farm.

Why McCleaf Orchards is involved in this project

Corey and Vicky believe in the importance of on-farm applied research trials to demonstrate sustainable production practices, as commercial pilot studies allow unique opportunities for grower and community input and successful technology transfer. They have been involved in three prior on-farm investigations, including a successful USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant project with model pilot orchards, which was the motivation for this beginning farmer project.

Corey and Vicky are original members of the Penn State Extension Young Grower Alliance (YGA) and continue to be active because of the opportunities for experiential learning along with networking with other young growers. In Corey's words, "a day away from the farm on a YGA tour is not a day "off", rather it is a day "on"—a unique opportunity to learn from other growers!"

McCleaf's Orchards has hosted a number of tours, and as part of this grant, hosted 3 bilingual study circles for Hispanic/Latino growers. They believe in the value of mentorship and plan to share what they learn in addition to other resources related to the project.

McCleaf's Orchard, Model Plot Case Study: Strawberries—Plasticulture

McCleaf’s Orchard is a fifth generation farm located in Biglerville, Pennsylvania. Since 1888 the family has maintained the same goal on their land: “to grow quality food our children will eat.” Corey McCleaf, 6th generation farmer, and his wife, Vicky, currently own and operate the 52-acre farm.

McCleaf's Orchard sells directly to the consumer via farmers markets in Washington, D.C., local restaurants, and their CSA. They also support local gleaning efforts and a regional food hub. Crop diversification allows regular rotation of a variety of crops, including everything from arugula to kiwiberries and tomatoes and cherries raised in high tunnels. Corey and Vicky rely on IPM for their wide array of fruits and vegetables and they use organic methods when possible. In an effort to meet the farms energy needs in a sustainable manner, Corey and Vicky successfully submitted a grant proposal to cover some of the costs of transitioning their cold storage facility to solar power. The farm is Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified and was designated a Pennsylvania Preserved Farm in 2008.

Site Description

McCleaf's Orchard's strawberry plot is a Penn Silt Loam soil (PcB). This soil holds many nutrients and drains well. The water table is reached within 200 inches below ground, and there is rarely a chance of flooding. Yearly, the orchard receives about 55 inches of rainfall, which is immediately absorbed by the soil. Bedrock may be reached anywhere from 20 to 40 inches. The site is frost-free 185 days per year.

The plot is relatively flat with a 3-8 percent slope. It lays central to the farm and has low deer pressure. Drip irrigation is supplied from a well that pumps 40 gallons per minute.

Plot History

Winter Cover 2014Crop 2014Winter Cover 2013Crop 2013Winter Cover 2012

Vegetables were previously grown in this site, including kale in 2013 and onions in 2014. Turnips were a winter cover crop in 2012. No compost was added 2012 to 2014.

Plot Description

The "Models for the Future" strawberry plot is indicated below by the orange rectangle. The field is 1 acre, and 1/3 will be maintained as a model plot.


Grasses were planted during the 2015 season to reduce the potential for soil-borne diseases and viruses transmitted by plant parasitic nematodes as well as to reduce weed pressure. Sorghum sudan was planted in the summer of 2015 and winter rye in the winter of 2015-16, prior to transplanting berries in July 2016. Strawberries perform best in soils that have never been planted to strawberries or have had adequate rotation. Strawberry disease problems tend to be reduced when soil health is optimized. For example, black root rot is common in strawberry plantings with highly compacted soils. The cover crops used in this model plot were chosen with the goals of increasing organic matter and improving overall soil health.

Soil Health and Fertility

The soil was first sampled on April 21, 2015. The Penn State Ag Analytical lab conducted the fertility analysis. The sample was analyzed for pH, Mehlich buffer lime requirement, and for phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and calcium by the Mehlich 3 (ICP) test.

No additional Nitrogen credit was given in 2015 due to an organic matter level of 1.8%. No legumes, compost or manure were in the field in the past two years and so no credit was available for residual nitrogen.

A second soil test was taken on May 13, 2016. Results are shown below. Kathy Demchak, Penn State Extension small fruit model plot advisor, visited the site later in May and based on cover crop growth and soil nutrient levels, recommended 60 lbs per acre of nitrogen and 110 lbs per acre of potash.

In 2015 and again in 2016, a Soil Health Analysis was conducted by the Cornell Soil Health Lab, including Organic Matter, Soil Texture, Active Carbon, Wet Aggregate Stability, Available Water Capacity, Surface and Sub-surface Hardness Interpretation, and Root Health. In 2015 the analysis indicated a need to increase organic matter. Other constraints such as aggregate stability and low respiration numbers resulted in the soil receiving an overall rating of 60, which is medium quality. After a year of sorghum sudan and rye cover crops, improvements were observed in surface hardness, aggregate stability, and respiration--all of which are important to strawberry establishment.

Surface hardness decreased from 148 p.s.i. to 40 p.s.i., decreasing compaction within the soil and making it easier for strawberry roots to grow. A decreased surface hardness also helps to prevent runoff and erosion, as well as increase infiltration. Aggregate stability increased from 9.8% to 14.3%, which is still considered a low rating, but is a good indicator of biological health improvement. Aggregate stability contributes to improved plant germination and health. Lastly, respiration improved 0.02 mg, which indicates a higher rate of metabolic activity and cycling of nutrients is now taking place. Overall, the soil improved a total of 9 rating points, for an excellent quality rating.

2015 soil health report:

2016 soil health report:

Nematode assays were conducted by Virginia Extension in May 2015. No nematode problem was detected.

Soil Preparation and Weed Management

Preparing the soil for planting strawberries was crucial during the summer and winter of 2015. There was a special emphasis on weed management and cover crop timing due to a yellow nutsedge problem and a small thistle patch in the field. The plot was disked in the spring and left fallow until July. Then, glyphosate was applied on July 21 at 3qt/A of 41% material. Glyphosate was applied at a higher rate to eradicate the thistle and suppress the nutsedge. After 6 days, Corey disked the plot to prepare a seeding bed for the cover crop and to rip up the newly-germinated nutsedge seedlings. The nutsedge started in a wet area of the field that has since been ameliorated with drainage tile.

Soil Health Management

On July 29, 2015, sorghum sudangrass was broadcast seeded as a cover crop at a high rate of 50 lbs per acre. The sudangrass benefits the plot by suppressing nutsedge growth and returning organic matter to the soil when cultivated.

On September 14, 2015, the sudangrass was 24 inches tall with a biomass of 908 lbs of dry matter per acre before being mowed with a flail mower. Sudangrass was incorporated immediately after mowing with a disk, leaving no more than twenty minutes between mowing and incorporation. The field was cultipacked directly after the cover crop was incorporated in order to seal in the volatile compounds that suppress soil-borne diseases. Another short bare fallow followed, in order to reduce the weed seed bank. Germinated weeds were knocked out with a shallow disking prior to sowing the winter cover crop.

On September 29, winter rye was seeded. Germination was spotty, and parts of the field were re-seeded in mid-December. Winter rye creates more biomass compared to oats and can help trap any nitrogen that might otherwise leach over the winter. It continues growing in the spring, providing competition for weeds, although it should not be allowed to get larger than boot phase.

On May 13, 2016, the rye was 28 inches tall with a biomass of 3238 lbs of dry matter per acre before being turned under 8 inches with a mold-board plow.

Bed Preparation

To prepare for the strawberry transplants, 60 pounds of nitrogen and 110 lbs of potash were applied on June 15, 2016, prior to laying black plastic and irrigation lines. The plastic mulch was applied with a raised bed plastic mulch layer that simultaneously laid two irrigation lines (shown below). Using mulch reduces weeding and improves water efficiency among other benefits. To further suppress weeds, the irrigation was turned on for a few days to encourage weed germination under the plastic. This was followed by 3 weeks of no irrigation, which suffocated the weeds.

Strawberry Culture

The beds were irrigated again beginning three days prior to planting the strawberries into the mulch. The strawberries were planted on Thursday, July 7, 2016, using a time saving tool (shown below) that cuts directly through the mulch and carefully positions the roots for optimum soil contact.

Plot Maintenance

Disease and pest scouting will begin two weeks after planting. During July and August, the flowers will be pinched and supplemental irrigation will be applied to ensure the berries receive a minimum of 1 inch per week. Runners will be cut as needed when they reach over the edge of the plastic. Regular plot maintenance will continue in the fall with runner removal and weeding to maintain bare row middles. Row covers for winter protection will be applied in late fall.

Interactive Budget

The interactive budget from " Models for the Future" strawberry plots  allow growers to assess the costs and benefits of cover crops and other sustainable practices in their own operations.

This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22852.