Steve Groff is a farmer whose life has taken some incredible and unexpected turns. He began farming full time after high school, and at first he used the conventional methods that his father and grandfather had used. Groff loved the family farm but quickly tired of one annual chore: filling the ditches caused by rainstorms so he could get his harvesting equipment into the fields. His search for a solution to erosion led him to start practicing no-till farming, and that decision began a lifelong quest for healthier, more resilient soils. Today, Groff is an advocate for regenerative agriculture as well as a full-time farmer, and along with the winter squash, tomatoes and such that he has grown for years, he is growing CBD hemp that is being used by Penn State for cancer research.
The Lancaster Patriot recently met with Groff at his Cedar Meadow Farm near Holtwood, where Groff shared about his work and his desire to educate the public about the importance of healthy soil for growing nutritious food.
From his earliest days in the fields, Groff knew that one problem that farmers face is keeping their soil where it belongs. Even simple rainstorms mean erosion for a farmer. Then he learned about no-till farming, an agricultural method in which fields are not plowed and seeds are drilled through plant residues that keep nutrients in the soil and also prevent soil from being washed away. When Groff began no-till farming in the early 1980s, his goal was to reduce erosion — but he began to see better yields in his no-till fields. Without knowing it, he had started down the path toward regenerative agriculture.
Groff defines regenerative agriculture as farmers trying to mimic nature as much as possible while growing food. A foundational element of that is minimizing soil disturbance by not tilling. He said that tilling disturbs “the critters” in the soil, such as microbes and mycorrhizal fungi. Groff described these fungi as “the bridge between bringing nutrients from the soil itself into the roots of plants.” Mycorrhizae attach to plant roots in a symbiotic relationship: the plant gives carbohydrates to the mycorrhizae, and the mycorrhizae help the roots absorb water and minerals.
Shortly after discovering the benefits of no-till, Groff began adapting and improving his use of cover crops. Using cover crops is another foundational process of regenerative farming, since they keep living roots in the soil. His family had already been using cover crops, but used them irregularly — only when it made sense or when it was convenient. In 1995, Groff began to work with Ray Weil, a scientist and professor at the University of Maryland who was studying soil health and sustainable farming. The research they conducted together on Groff’s farm included studying the effects of cover crops, and this resulted in a revelation for Groff in 1999. It had been a drier than normal year in Lancaster County, and when he brought in the harvest, he discovered that the no-till fields that had been protected by cover crops had a significantly higher yield than his other no-till fields.
He continued to increase his knowledge of cover crops until he became an expert in them. He also developed what has become known as the “tillage radish”: a daikon radish designed as a cover crop, which can grow to two feet or more and has earned a reputation for being able to loosen compacted soil.
With his accumulated knowledge, Groff has traveled around the world throughout the past twenty-some years, speaking at conferences and educating farmers about cover crops and regenerative agriculture.
It is only natural that someone interested in soil health would become interested in the quality of the food that he is growing. Groff pointed out that for years the goal of most farmers has been yield per acre. Since farmers are paid by how much they produce, this has seemed a sensible goal. But Groff said that the processes used to achieve higher yields have often resulted in food that is not as nutritionally dense as it once was — which means the amount of vitamins and minerals per ounce has diminished. Groff is currently working with the Bionutrient Food Association, an organization that is developing the Bionutrient Meter: a device that lets farmers monitor the nutrient levels of their crops. The association hopes to someday make the tool available to consumers, who could check the nutrient density of produce at the grocery store.
Groff’s interest in growing better produce by using better agricultural techniques has led him down another path he never would have imagined. In 2016, a friend of his introduced him to a hemp product known as CBD — cannabidiol, a chemical compound derived from cannabis, which is the scientific name for hemp. Initially, Groff was skeptical, since he had grown up thinking that marijuana was evil. But when his friend shared how much he had been helped by CBD, Groff became curious and started investigating hemp. He discovered that it is actually a family of plants that are cultivated for different purposes, and for centuries it was a staple crop in many states, including Pennsylvania — which is why three Pennsylvania counties have townships named Hempfield. It was not until marijuana became a societal problem that the hemp plant came under scrutiny, and all forms of the plant were banned from cultivation in the 1930s — an outcome that Groff compared to the idea of banning all types of corn if popcorn were found to contain an addictive drug.
The kind of hemp grown for CBD has virtually none of the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) compounds that are found in the marijuana plant and that cause the high associated with it. However, these compounds were not clearly distinguished from each other until the 1960s. After a federal ban of over 80 years, the growing of hemp was permitted again by the 2018 Farm Bill — although the marijuana variety of the cannabis plant is still tightly regulated.
Groff began growing hemp for CBD in 2019, and CBD products have since become an important part of his business. He is pleased with their quality, which he believes is directly tied to his long-standing soil practices. The CBD products he sells come only from his farm, and the hemp is under his eye from seed to harvest. Only the extraction is done off-site, and even that is under his supervision. Groff is glad that his products never have to leave Lancaster County and that he can so closely monitor them, since he knows that many CBD products are of dubious origin. The Food and Drug Administration rejects CBD as a supplement and as a medicine and therefore does not regulate it, so there is virtually no oversight of the products offered for sale. Groff knows of at least three instances where products were evaluated and found to contain no CBD at all.
In the past, Groff was encouraged when people praised the quality of his produce; now he is humbled when they tell him that his CBD products have changed their lives. He has heard from some who have been able to manage Lyme disease, migraine headaches and poison ivy with his products. He is further encouraged by the hopeful results that Penn State cancer researchers are having with his CBD. He now believes that CBD hemp “is the best plant that God made for humans and our health care.”
In recent years, Groff has shifted his primary focus from helping farmers to educating the public. He noted that people are living longer than ever before, but are also sicker than ever before. There may be varying causes for this, Groff said, but he is convinced that part of the problem lies in the lack of nutrition in our food. He believes that consumers are increasingly concerned about the need for healthier food, and as they ask for more of it, farmers will respond to the demand. This in turn will encourage them to develop healthier soils, which are good both for the environment and for the people who eat the food grown in those soils. These issues are why, in 2020, he published “The Future-Proof Farm: Changing Mindsets in a Changing World.” In that book, he seeks to persuade farmers that the practices of regenerative farming and the emphasis on nutrient-dense food are vital to their future success.
For more information on Steve Groff, his farm and his online products, visit stevegroff.com and cedarmeadow.farm.
Freelance writer Nathan Birx has written articles for The Lancaster Patriot since March 2022. He can be reached at email@example.com.