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100-year-old Plants Cover Crops for the First Time

by Lisa Blazure.

It’s often said you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. But don’t share that adage with Don Ace, 100, and Max Stoner, 80, who built a community garden for ten residents at their retirement community, The Village at Penn State. While Ace has decades of farming and home garden experience, he just recently delved into planting cover crops.

Don Ace (left) and Max Stoner (right) looking over the raised beds

Lisa Blazure, soil health coordinator for the Pennsylvania Soil Health Coalition and Stroud Water Research Center is related to Stoner by marriage. She manages her own garden with cover crops and no-till techniques and had suggested to Stoner that he and Ace try cover cropping.

So Stoner bought a bag of oat seed, and the two men were on their way.

Ace said, “Max and I have four raised beds where we planted the oats. As others saw what we were doing and the nice new growth in the fall, they wanted to try it too. So now, all but one of the 13 raised beds has oats growing.”

Ace shared, “We like the idea that the oats will die over the winter, and we don’t need to use an herbicide to kill it in the spring. We’re hoping that the mulch layer after it dies will help with weed control next spring.”

According to Blazure, oats are an excellent crop for the soil because they support beneficial mycorrhizae fungi populations and alter the chemistry of the soil to help plants better absorb nutrients.

Ace has a long history in agriculture. Born in 1923, he grew up on a 25-cow dairy farm in rural Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Just like the old stories, he walked a mile and a half each way to school from the fourth to 11th grade. On the farm, they planted winter wheat for chicken feed and oats for the horses. They also planted red clover as a nitrogen source for the corn. Back then, they didn’t have mechanical equipment, so the twenty acres of corn they grew each year were hand-planted and hand-harvested for silage. His education at Penn State was interrupted by World War II, when upon enlisting, the Army sent him back to the family farm to serve his country by keeping milk in production.

He resumed his college education after the war and graduated with a degree in dairy nutrition. His first job was as a county agent for Penn State Extension. After a brief stint in the private sector working for the American Breeders Service, he returned to Penn State’s dairy center as the herd nutritionist. By the time he retired in 1984, he was the department head.

Around the time of his retirement, no-till planting was gaining momentum in Pennsylvania. But it would take a couple more decades for cover crops to become mainstream. Today, cover crops are used in home gardens as well as on farms. And Don Ace and Max Stoner have proven that you’re never too old to learn and try something new.


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