Amish and Mennonite tobacco farmers are increasing soil health and preventing soil erosion by utilizing no-till planting practices in Lancaster County, Pa. New machinery, developed with assistance from Penn State Extension, enables these farmers to grow tobacco in an environmentally friendly manner with little to no soil disturbance.
South Central Pennsylvania farms have many rolling hills with cropland which is prone to soil erosion and degradation. Continuous no-till crop production can be a very effective practice to address this problem. Once slow to adopt, No-till crop production practices many of the Amish and Mennonite, (Plain) farmers of this region are now using no-till production for corn, soybean, alfalfa and other forages. Many of these farmers have expressed an interest in using no-till practices on tobacco and vegetable crops.
Additionally, many farm conservation plans (required for each farm in Pa) now dictate no-till production to prevent soil and nutrient loss. Central PA farmland is part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which is under intense scrutiny to meet minimum water quality standards.
Tobacco is a very important “cash” crop with approximately 9,000 acres grown in Pennsylvania each year, with the majority grown by these “Plain” farms. An acre of tobacco can generate $5,000 in gross income, which is especially important with the current low milk prices. Tobacco production alone contributes approximately $35-40 million dollars to local farms and farm families.
Currently, little machinery exists which is capable of no-till transplanting tobacco and vegetables. Working with the Lancaster County Conservation District, some grant funding, and a local Amish shop, we designed and constructed a 1 row, horse drawn no-till transplanter in the spring of 2015. The design proved to be quite effective and word and enthusiasm spread within the Plain community. In 2015, approximately 25 farms each tried an acre of two of no-till tobacco.
We could hardly believe our success, since 2015, interest has exploded. This past spring, 2017, saw 5 additional machines constructed and being rented for no-till production. Well over 200 acres of no-till tobacco were produced. Concerns over lower yield and quality have not proven to be an issue, and we believe that no-till transplanting will find a place among the Amish and Mennonite farmers here in the Susquehanna Valley.