Q&A: Steve Groff, vegetable farmer: Watch the farmers markets

Pennsylvania vegetable farmer says to be prudent in times like the current pandemic.

Steve Groff has a vegetable farm in south-central Pennsylvania, but he’s got plenty of other interests. He grows cover crops and has been an educator and consultant for 25 years on the subject. He is the founder of Cover Crop Solutions and manages over 400 replicated cover crop research plots on his farm.

Groff developed the tillage radish and built the first cover crop roller crimper in the U.S. He is also the author of a new book coming out in midsummer, The Future-Proof Farm. Successful Farming caught up with him right before this season kicks off.

SF: Tell us how are you doing in this era of COVID-19?

SG: Well, honestly, for me, it’s not been a whole lot different than normal. I mean, plants grow and crops need to be planted and we’re preparing right now to plant our first tomatoes in the high tunnel. Here on the farm, we kind of, I guess you’d say, naturally social distance. It just hasn’t been much of a change. Now when we go out, which isn’t very much at all, even to pump gas, I wear a mask. That’s where my handkerchief comes in real handy.

SF: And looking ahead?

SG: What’s the future going to look like? What are the next several months? We’re starting to see some of our food chain disruptions, meatpacking plants closing, that will definitely affect things in the future. I am a vegetable farmer. I feel like I might be better off than some, but I don’t know. I hope restaurants will open up this summer. We’re expecting them to be, but I guess you would say I’m cautiously optimistic on that front. There are so many unknowns with this that I’m not going to predict exactly what’s going to happen.

SF: What do potential food shortages mean to Americans who never see that?

SG: First, as Americans, we’ve been very fortunate over the years, over the decades, to have a very stable and adequate food supply. So I think we’ve never maybe faced what we may be facing. We’ve not had to experience many food issues at all. I think the meat is maybe the most vulnerable because packing plants have closed down, some have been very limited in their shifts because the workers there, either a few of them got sick or people were afraid to show up to work because they thought they might catch the coronavirus.

Because of the nature of just-in-time delivery, like so much of our food system has, now supplies are being disrupted. There will be some hiccups and I think that’ll lead to some shortages. It would be my advice that the next time you go to the store, you may want to buy an extra pack of meat or so – not that we want to hoard. We don’t need to do that toilet paper thing – that was ridiculous. But the fact is you want to A) be a little prepared, and B) stay tuned to it. I think vegetables and some of the other crops that are going to be growing, and we’re going to grow them. I don’t think there’s going to be any problems getting them to market or anything like that.

The real question is the dynamic of the restaurant business and then the grocery store business. And then on a smaller scale, the direct farm markets.

SF: How are farmers markets doing?

SG: Farmers markets are doing very well. Matter of fact, I know some farmers markets that have indeed set records of sales. Part of that are people who would just as soon not to go to a big box store, a big grocery store, or prefer to stay away from people. And I think there’s a little renewed interest about buying more local and locally grown. I really think – and I really hope – that consumers would gravitate toward locally grown products. My first crops come in the second or third week of July. I’m hoping by then that we’ll be pretty much open for business.

SF: Has the just-in-time food supply been built to create more savings and efficiency in the food system?

SG: It could be efficiencies. It’s freshness. We all know that fresh is best. I’m a third-generation vegetable grower. You want to harvest your crop, get it to market on the store shelf and literally into people’s kitchens as fast as possible. Because they’re perishable. In a way, it’s a good design. The system is well designed for freshness. That being said, I always reflect back to my parents, my grandparents – they would routinely can vegetables. They would freeze meat, and they would basically have a stockpile. I think a little preparedness is prudent. I think this experience will cause a little bit more preparedness for all of us.

SF: Is your season kicking off now?

SG: I’m in southeastern Pennsylvania. Our growing season is just beginning. We’re going to start transplanting tomatoes in our high-tunnel greenhouses here in two days. I don’t have early spring crops like asparagus or onions that tend to come early.

SF: Did you consider changing crops this year?

SG: I will say that over the last several weeks, my son and I have had some discussions. Should we change the vegetables that we grow? Are there other ones that might not be as vulnerable? I grow tomatoes and they’re very popular. I grow winter squash, and they’re pretty popular. So we’re going to stick with the plan. We’re going to stick with what we intended to do. I’m not increasing acreage. I’m not decreasing acreage. Going to stick with the plan. This is what I know to do.

SF: Tell us what The Future-Proof Farm book is about?

SG: We need to be growing more nutritious food. But we haven’t been, as farmers, been paid or incentivized to grow higher nutritious food – that has more vitamins, more minerals in it. We’re pretty much paid to produce food based on yield. I get paid by how many pounds of tomatoes I sell, not how good of a quality they are. And there’s a difference. This has implications worldwide because some areas have been either really far behind in their agriculture, and the quality of their food is not what it should be. They’ve pretty much ignored the biological component in agriculture. Because of that, the quality of their food is subpar.

SF: What sort of advice would you give to a farmer now?

SG: First of all, if you’re growing a crop, a vegetable, or whatever you’re growing, that you know there is a common need for, stay the course. I think there is a business aspect of this; you try to connect with people who may be helpful and understand the best decisions. There’s also an emotional aspect. Trust me, I myself have to be careful that I don’t get distracted by emotion. We have been separated from our friends, our family. We can text, we can talk to them, but there’s a social dynamic that we as human beings have that has been stripped away from us here in the last couple of months. Make sure they look out for their emotional well-being, as well.

The Future-Proof Farm

(to be published midsummer 2020)


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