Start Farming Demonstration Plots

On-farm demonstration plots are a key component of "Supporting Pennsylvania New Farmers in the Start-up, Re-strategizing, and Establishing Years".
Start Farming Demonstration Plots - Articles


Model plot grower cooperators are in the re-strategizing and establishing years of developing their farm enterprises and incorporate many sustainable practices into their operations.

The model plots incorporate cutting-edge practices beneficial to beginning farmers, and have been established at seven farms within five counties across the state. The project has created educational opportunities for growers of diverse backgrounds, including the creation of study circle networks for beginning growers, a new commercial fruit grower school, and bilingual educational materials and videos. Three of the study circles are specifically designed to support women in agriculture, and three of the model plots engage Latino growers. The project is funded by the USDA NIFA and is specific to apple, berry, and vegetable production.

Four of the participating growers maintain vegetable model plots. Over the course of three seasons, growers will rotate two sections of these plots between various cover crops and cash crops that include tomatoes, winter squash, onions and brassicas. The growers work closely with Penn State educators and advisors to implement a set of "Best Management Practices" which demonstrate practical ways that farmers can work towards improving overall soil health and reducing both disease and pest pressure.

Model plot growers work closely with Penn State educators and advisors to implement a set of "Best Management Practices".

Vegetable crops require nutrient-rich soil so they can grow productive, healthy plants that produce a high-quality crop. While it may be tempting to grow the same crop in the same field every year to simplify land management, this practice reduces soil fertility and promotes the buildup of host-specific pests that, over time, would lead to disease, insect, and weed problems. Rotating fields between different crops reduces the buildup of crop-specific pests, as many pests need a specific host plant to reach damaging levels within a field. In addition to reducing crop-specific pests, vegetable rotations are an important component of the overall soil fertility management system on the farm.

To go one step further, the model plot growers will be adding cover crops to the vegetable rotations in multiple stages of crop succession. These crops are usually not grown with the intent of selling them at market, but instead are grown to improve the health of the field. They are often grown outside of the main summer production months (late fall to early spring), but can also be grown during the summer if they are paired with early or late season cool weather crops. The vegetable crop plantings are broken up with cover crops that include winter (grain) rye, sorghum-sudangrass, a mixture of oats and peas, and a winter rye and clover mixture. Each cover crop provides unique benefits to the field.

In the winter rye and clover rotation, the clover takes atmospheric nitrogen and converts it to a form that can be taken up by the plant. When the clover decomposes and is incorporated into the soil, the N supplied can be used by later crops. Winter rye produces a large amount of biomass that can improve soil tilth and fertility. Cover crops that remain in the field over the winter help to hold the soil in place with their roots and prevent erosion. In addition to these benefits, the rye and clover reduce the growth of fall and spring germinating weeds by providing competition when the soil might otherwise be bare. The decomposing rye releases natural plant compounds that may reduce the growth of weed seeds.

When grown as a cover crop, winter rye forms a thick canopy that suppresses weeds by competing for sunlight and nutrients.

The sorghum-sudangrass used in the project produces cyanogenic compounds that can suppress plant-pathogenic fungi. The sorghum-sudangrass releases the cyanogenic compounds to the soil when the cover crop is flail mowed, incorporated, and packed into the soil within thirty minutes after mowing. Packing the cover crop into the soil is essential because otherwise the cyanogenic compounds would volatilize into the atmosphere instead of being released into the soil where they will have an effect on plant-pathogenic fungi.

Sorghum-sudangrass reduces populations of disease causing fungi, bacteria, and plant-parasitic nematodes when it is flail mowed and incorporated into the soil.

A broader environmental benefit of the cover crops are their ability to scavenge any nutrients within the soil that may have otherwise leached out during the winter, keeping the nutrients out of waterways that would eventually lead into the rivers of Pennsylvania. These cover crops may ultimately protect the Delaware Bay, the Chesapeake, and even the Gulf of Mexico.

To further demonstrate the impacts and real world applications of cover cropping, the team is scouting for major pests and conducting leaf tissue analysis and soil health tests. Like other soil tests, the soil health test includes data on the chemical components of the soil. These variables include soil nutrient testing, soil acidity, and salinity. In addition to reporting on the chemical properties of the soil, the soil health tests include physical and biological soil properties. Physical properties include soil texture, density, and soil hardness. Biological properties include the presence of soil pathogens, soil active carbon content, soil organic matter, and soil protein content. As scouting results, tissue tests, and soil health tests are evaluated throughout each season, Penn State educators and advisors assist growers with recommendations for soil inputs and pest management strategies to further demonstrate best management practices.

The model demonstration plots also allow growers to assess potential economic benefits from growing cover crops. For example, one participating grower realized a $46/acre savings due to nitrogen credits from a higher organic matter level.

The model plots are a valuable resource for study circles, workshops, and educational materials for other beginning farmers at the Penn State Extension website.

Model Plot Grower Cooperators

  • Lisa Miskelly, Anton Shannon, Good Work Farm
  • Jake Scholl, Scholl Orchards
  • Joseph Bozzelli, Five Elements Farm
  • Dave and Art King, Harvest Valley Farms
  • Arturo Diaz, Jesse King, Michael King, Twin Springs Fruit Farm
  • Brett Saddington, Bedminster Orchard.
  • Corey McCleaf, Vicky McCleaf, McCleaf's Orchard

Model Plot/Study Circle Team, Penn State Extension

  • Model Plot Project Coordinator, Marley Skinner
  • Project Directors - Michael Masiuk (2015-16), Tianna Dupont (2014-15)
  • West - Lee Stivers, Bob Pollock, Andrew Moore
  • Southeast - Marley Skinner, Kathy Salisbury
  • Central - Rob Crassweller, Don Smith
  • South-central - Tara Baugher, Mike Basedow, Kristi Kraft
  • Latino Study Circles - Montserrat Fonseca Estrada
  • Women Study Circles - Patty Neiner

Model Plots Project Advisors, Penn State Extension

  • Kari Peters, Tree Fruit Plant Pathologist
  • Beth Gugino, Vegetable Plant Pathologist
  • Greg Krawczyk, Tree Fruit Entomologist
  • Kathy Demchak, Berry Specialist
  • Rob Crassweller, Tree Fruit Specialist
  • Shelby Fleisher, Vegetable Entomologist

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Liebman, M. and E. Dyck. 1993. Crop Rotation and Intercropping Strategies for Weed Management. Ecological Applications 3(1):92-122.

Nair, A. 2015. Cover crops in vegetable production systems. Iowa State University Extension.

Schulz, M., A. Marocco, V. Tabaglio, F.A. Macias, and J.M.G. Molinillo. 2013. Benzoxazinoids in Rye Allelopathy - From Discovery to Application in Sustainable Weed Control and Organic Farming. J. Chem. Eco. 39(2):154-174.