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Focus on Small-Scale Vegetable Farming: Field Demonstrations Build Capacity for Use of Cover Crops, Reduced Tillage

Cover crops provide benefits to vegetable farms of all sizes in addition to larger-scale contributions to the public good. Reduced tillage systems can provide additional soil health benefits. Many agriculture professionals who advise farmers aren’t familiar with the use of cover crops and reduced tillage systems on farms. Farmers also may not be familiar with less common cover crops and may not have time to work through challenges of reduced tillage systems. These factors limit the adoption of new practices.

Over the last three growing seasons, Purdue Extension established demonstration plots of cover crops and reduced tillage in vegetables at Purdue’s Agricultural Centers (PACs). Extension collaborated with the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts to establish cover crop demonstrations specifically for small specialty crop farms at the Pinney Purdue Agricultural Center (PPAC). Demonstrations were documented with photography and videography that were subsequently used in education programs and virtual and in-person presentations. Where possible, information on crop performance was collected and presented. These demonstrations were also featured at field days for growers in 2021 and 2022, and at a field day for agriculture professionals in 2022. There were 995 farmers who attended the education events in person at the PAC demonstration plots or via online presentations. An additional 56 agriculture professionals attended training at the demonstration plots.

Growers and their agricultural advisors gained familiarity with a wider variety of cover crops, with challenges of establishing vegetables by seed without tillage into cover crop residue, and with practical means of overcoming those challenges. They learned about practices and equipment used by small-scale farmers that are not common on larger farms, including termination of a cover crop using a silage tarp, or incorporating cover crop seed into untilled cover crop residue with a power harrow attached to a walk-behind tractor. As a result, farmers and their agriculture advisors increased their knowledge and capacity to incorporate cover crops and reduced tillage into vegetable production, which can enable them to reap the documented benefits of these practices: reduced soil erosion, enhanced soil aggregation, increased availability of water for crop production, and improved soil quality. Purdue Extension demonstration plots and education events help build capacity of small-scale vegetable growers in using cover crops and reduced tillage systems.

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