No-Till Innovations in Tobacco

Learn about no-till tobacco production in Lancaster County PA.
No-Till Innovations in Tobacco - Videos

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Learn and see how no-till production of tobacco increases soil health and reduces runoff and nutrient pollution. New machinery, developed with assistance from Penn State Extension, allows Lancaster County’s Amish and Mennonite farms to plant and grow tobacco in an environmentally friendly manner.

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- [Instructor] Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is home to about 30,000 Amish and conservative Mennonites.

Farming is truly a way of life for these families whose faith includes a love and respect for the land.

In addition to growing corn and alfalfa to feed their horses and dairy animals, tobacco is grown on about 7,000 acres.

This makes it the most important cash crop in the county and adds about $30 million to the local agricultural economy.

Tobacco has been grown here since colonial times, and the county has even developed its own unique variety called Pennsylvania or type 41 tobacco.

It is a variety with high quality and of high value that is used for cigar wrappers.

If your image of an Amish farmer is a team of horses pulling a plow, you might be mistaken.

The horses remain, but many of these farms have begun adopting no-till production practices, as shown here by this Amish farmer planting corn with a no-till corn planter.

No-till helps to increase soil health and reduce soil erosion.

No-till fields will often have a cover crop, such as clover, rye, or wheat, growing over the winter to protect and hold the soil in place.

In a no-till system, this cover crop is left in place while the main crop is planted directly into it.

The picture on the right is a no-till corn field.

Note the thick mat of residue protecting the soil.

Field crops such as corn, soybeans, and alfalfa account for the majority of crop acres in central Pennsylvania are now typically planted with no-till.

Just like their English neighbors, the plain community has adopted this practice which also increases soil health and protects local streams and water sources.

Unfortunately, producing tobacco and other specialty crops with no-till is more difficult than traditional corn and soybeans.

On the left we see typical soil erosion from two tobacco fields that occurred during a summer thunderstorm.

This is a common sight with many negative consequences for the farmer and his neighbors.

Today, most of the tobacco in Lancaster and across the U.S. is not grown using no-till practices.

That is because farmers need to plow and cultivate the soil for weed control.

Also, small horse-drawn no-till planting machinery doesn't exist.

Listen as Penn State Agronomy Educator Jeff Graybill discusses the traditional method of tobacco production on a local Amish farm.

- We're here in a typical Lancaster County tobacco field.

In fact, this would be pretty representative of tobacco as it's grown across the United States and maybe even around the world.

Tobacco is traditionally transplanted by hand, and then it is cultivated numerous times with machinery to eliminate weeds and competition and loosen the soil.

As you can see, we'll look at the soil here.

It's very loose, which means it's very apt to be eroded should be have a heavy rain.

You can get gullies and ditches and lose a lot of your valuable topsoil when you're growing tobacco.

And so one of the main reasons that we're looking into no-till tobacco production is to prevent soil erosion and factors such as improving soil health and other soil quality factors and indicators.

So why don't we look at the soil here a little bit here, and then we'll go look at a no-till field across the driveway.

So this was actually cultivated, and then we had a rain on it afterward.

So this has had a rain to settle the soil.

But even so, you can just see.

It's nice, it's loose, but a heavy rain and a little bit of slope, and this soil, tons and tons of this soil, can just erode out of this field, getting into streams and waterways, causing pollution and other issues with sediment and nutrient loss.

- [Instructor] Local farmers are interested in using no-till practices to grow tobacco.

Penn State Extension, working with the Lancaster County Conservation District, is working with them to accomplish this goal.

Many of the advantage of no-till are listed here.

Let's look at a field of no-till tobacco, comparing it with a traditionally grown field.

- Now we're in a field actually just across the driveway from the previous tilled field.

This is also Burley tobacco.

It was planted the same day, actually with the same no-till planter that we are discussing.

And just to point out some of the benefits of no-till.

The farmer here grew a fairly heavy triticale cover crop.

If we look at the triticale, we can see that we've got a nice protective mat protecting the soil.

We can see moisture under here if we dig it up.

A little bit of dairy manure on top here.

The soil is nice, loose, and friable.

Actually, fairly wet yet.

And if we look at the tobacco plants, they basically are about the same growth stage as their sister plants across the driveway.

If you look across this field, you will see it is a little less uniform.

That's one of the challenges we have with no-till.

But if you're managing the planter right, you're managing your fertility and your herbicide program right, this field should even up and look pretty much identical to the field that we have across the driveway.

- [Instructor] Tobacco and many vegetables are started as plugs in a greenhouse and then transplanted out into the field.

A simple machine that could clear away the cover crop residue, part the soil and start the plant, and then close the furrow was needed.

This is a photo of our prototype machine which we were able to design and construct with a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant.

It was constructed here in Lancaster County by a local Amish fabrication shop.

Volunteer tobacco farmers were then recruited to trial our machine on a few acres.

Here in the video we are planting tobacco into a field that has a heavy rye cover crop.

Herbicides were used to kill the rye and to prevent new weeds from growing.

In the background, you can see the farmer's conventionally plowed tobacco field.

A heavy rain could easily erode the soil, create gullies, and pollute nearby streams.

Compare that with the section of the field that the farm has reserved four our transplanter.

You can easily envision the benefits to the farmer, the soil, and the environment.

This is a photo of that same section of the field about 45 days after planting.

Note the uniform crop and extensive mat of residue protecting the soil.

As you might guess, we were quite excited with our initial results and the machine's potential.

Would this tobacco grow and develop as well as the neighboring traditionally planted tobacco?

In this photo, no-till tobacco is on the left and conventional-tilled tobacco is on the right, also planted on for a season.

You can see that the no-till tobacco looks every bit as good as the conventional tobacco.

In fact, the Penn State planter was used on 22 farms that year, transplanting almost 40 acres of tobacco, as well as some no-till broccoli and pumpkins.

In the fall of 2015, we surveyed the participants and found that most were impressed with the performance of the machine and their tobacco crop.

Most planned to try no-till again the following year.

News of our success spread at winter tobacco production meetings and by word of mouth within the planting community.

In anticipation of demand, Joe's machine shop constructed two more planters for rent and sale.

2016 saw an explosion of interest, and even with two more units we could not meet the demand for a planter.

With a lot of effort, our machine was used on 29 farms with over 60 acres of no-till tobacco.

We do not have data for the additional planters, but we know that the three machines planted over 100 acres of tobacco in 2016.

As interest in no-till tobacco and our machine continues to grow, we are making small changes and improvements to the initial design.

The most recent growing season, 2017, saw the construction of three additional no-till transplanters.

We estimate that well over 200 acres of no-till tobacco were grown here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania the summer of 2017.

Pictured here are 10 acres of Burley tobacco grown by an Amish farmer who has purchased a no-till transplanter and now grows all his tobacco using no-till practices.

Most of his farmland has steep slopes, and no-tilling is a must to prevent serious soil erosion and degradation.

All of his crops are now grown without plowing or cultivating the soil.

You can see that it is a beautiful uniform crop, just as his corn and alfalfa are.

With so many farmers using no-till, we believe that tobacco and vegetable acreage planted can continue to grow while increasing the health of our soils, the quality of our streams, and the sustainability of our farms.

For more information on no-till tobacco or the no-till transplanter, contact Jeffrey Graybill at Penn State Extension, phone number 717-394-6851.

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