Evaluation of southern peas as cash cover crop in Pennsylvania

2009 Annual Report for FNE08-625

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2008: $5,399.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Michael Byers
Demeter's Garden

Evaluation of southern peas as cash cover crop in Pennsylvania


Interim Report

Note to readers, attached is the complete annual report for FNE08-625

2. Goals.

The goal of this project is to evaluate southern peas (common names, cowpeas, black-eye peas, crowder peas, etc.) as an income producing crop also capable of increasing nitrogen availability in the following planting year. Increased nitrogen availability will reduce fertilizer costs for small organic farms without an on-farm source of animal manure. Three varieties of southern peas will be evaluated with regard to season suitability, yield and market acceptance.

3. Farm Profile.

Demeter’s Garden is a certified organic raspberry and produce farm located on 25 acres in Centre County, PA. Mike and Virginia Byers have operated this farm part time for seven years gradually adding other small fruit such as gooseberries, red currants and black currants as well as specialty produce (okra). Yield from these plantings is marketed through farmers’ markets in Centre County as well as being processed into value added products like jam, jellies, syrups and baked goods. Mike also operates an apiary and markets honey locally and throughout PA and the NE. In 2008 a small hop planting was established with the intent to supply local brewpubs. A modest inventory of equipment (tractors, tillage, sowing, mowing, cultivation) is used in support of these crops.

4. Participants.

Dr Elsa S. Sanchez, Dept of Horticulture, 202 Tyson Building, University Park, PA 16802. Dr Sanchez’ current research work includes compost application rates in organic crops and methods to reduce weed pressure including cover cropping. She contributed to the project design and randomization.

Chef Mike Ditchfield, Pennsylvania College of Technology. Chef Mike participated in discussions concerning the marketability of southern peas and their use in restaurants.

5. Project activities
A test plot measuring 200 feet by 100 feet was selected in an field previously used for sweet sorghum production. Soil samples were taken from 5 areas within the plot and combined within the area and sent for soil analysis and fertilization recommendations.

Four replicate plantings of three varieties of southern peas were established. For each variety (Texas Pinkeye Purple Hull, California 46, and Cream 40), five 100 ft contiguous rows (36’ apart) were planted in each replicate block. Planting location within blocks followed a randomization provided by Dr. Sanchez. Planting date was June 9, 2008 and rate was 30 lbs/acre. Depth was 1.5 inches. A John Deere 290 planter with bean plates on the slowest setting was used to deliver seed at approximately 5’” spacing in the row. Plants emerged on 6/16/08 and were cultivated twice beginning on 7/9/08. Plant population for each variety was determined by counting plants within multiple 18” strips, determining an average and multiplying by 10,000. Hand weeding commenced 7/25 and continued through 8/9/08. Pea harvest commenced 8/16/08 (Texas Pinkeye) and finished 10/3/08 (Cream 40). Remaining vegetation was plowed under 10/15/08. Each replicate variety was picked, the peas weighed, shelled (using a Model 675 “Little Sheller” from Taylor Manufacturing Company, Moultrie, GA), and the shelled peas weighed. Shelled peas were packaged in 1lb bags for sale at market. Excess peas were washed and packaged in 3 lb bags and frozen.

6. Results.

Mechanical problems with the planter resulted in skips for 2 replicates. Cultivation “mishaps” produced additional gaps in the rows. A correction factor was applied to the yield data from these replicates in order to provide comparison to a common area. Considerable variation in yield for all varieties was seen across the replicate plots. The D plot had the highest yield for 2 varieties and the B plot had the lowest yields for 2 varieties.

Table 1. Plant Population and Yields of Pods and Shelled Peas
Texas Pinkeye Cream 40 California 46
Plants/acre 66667 80000 70000
A 37.9/13.96 39.80/18.70 32.85/17.43*
B 20.72/7.09 21.07/10.20* 24.61/11.09*
C 29.54/9.65 21.24/9.90 16.2/7.72
D 85.43/32.94 30.75/14.5 31.32/14.06
Total pod (lbs) 173.59 112.86 105.05
Total Shelled (lbs) 61.74 53.20 50.30
Shellout (%) 35.6% 47.3% 47.6%

Shelled peas (lbs/acre) 494 426 402
“corrected for missing rows
Table 1 lists the essential findings of the project. Little difference in shelled pea yield was seen within the varieties chosen. Shellout percentage was lower for Texas Pinkeye, confirming the observation that these pods were slightly fleshier. The yields per acre are about 50% of values reported in literature from southern universities.

Changes in nitrogen availability will be assessed by additional soil tests in the spring of 2009.

7. Conditions

May 2008 was cold and wet. These conditions delayed direct planting activities until June 9. We expected to have seeding complete by third week in May. However, this delay in planting resulted in a harvest delay of only 1 week based on our previous small trial in 2007. On the positive side, the delay in planting probably contributed to the quick emergence (7 days).

8. Economics

Seed costs were less than estimated ($70 vs $140) as a result of identifying bulk seed sources in the South. Harvest labor was about as estimated, requiring about 4 hours on each of 14 picking days to pick and shell peas. The purchased pea sheller worked very well, exactly as advertised. Capacity was 2-3 bushels of pods (50-75lbs) per hour. We also found that the sheller works well with garden peas, broad beans and edamame. Fifty two percent of the actual yield of fresh shelled peas were sold a local farmers market for $3.00/lb (bagged but not cleaned of snaps, etc.) for total of $240. About 10% were sold as frozen peas in 3lb package at the market (after the picking season). The remaining inventory was sold frozen to a restaurant at $2.50/lb. Total proceeds were $422.50. per 0.5 acre of peas.

9. Assessment

The most significant observation at this point in the project is that we completely missed the importance of inoculating the pea seeds prior to planting. The test plot had been in grasses for several years prior to the trial; and cowpeas require a specific inoculant that differs from inoculants used for soybeans or alfalfa. By 2 weeks after emergence the pea plants showed signs of choriosus (yellowing) that continued for 6 weeks. Having the appropriate Rhizobium in the root zone would most likely have increased the yield.

Weed control is also very important. Use of early mechanical weeders such as a rotary hoe would have reduced the amount of hand weeding.

10. Adoption

Even without knowing if the nitrogen availability in the test plots is improved we are planning to plant peas again in the spring of 2009 and incorporate them into our rotation. The peas were well received by our market customers.

11. Outreach

We prepared a handout containing nutritional information and receipes for black-eyed peas that were given to customers at the farmers market. In August we participated in the Centre County Farm Tour organized by PASA. We hosted 85 visitors in a 4 hour time span. The handout described above was available as well as tours of the research plot. Web advertisements for the weekly market as well as the farm tour highlighted the availability of peas.

Several pea receipes were prepared for a benefit luncheon. Tasters were polled regarding their experience.

The complete project report (following spring evaluations) will be presented at the 2009 farm tour.

12. Summary

The goal of this project is to evaluate southern peas (common names, cowpeas, black-eye peas, crowder peas, etc.) as an income producing crop also capable of increasing nitrogen availability in the following planting year. Four replicate plantings of three varieties of southern peas were established at a population of 70,000 plants/acre following soil tests. Picking commenced August 16 and continued for 6 weeks. Peas from each replicate were weighed after picking, shelled using a Taylor Little Giant pea sheller and the shelled peas weighed again. Texas Pinkeye were earliest variety and had the greatest yield. Overall shelled pea yield was 151 lbs which were sold at farmers market or to restaurants at average of $2.75/lb. Some customers were familiar with fresh black-eye peas and were pleased to find in the market. Others unfamiliar with the products who purchased peas made additional purchases. The product was well received. We do not yet know how soil nitrogen in the plot has been effected. Soil tests will be conducted in the spring. We plan to plant additional pea acreage next spring.


Dr. Elsa Sanchez

[email protected]
Techincal Advisor
Dept. Of Horticulture, 202 Tyson Building
Penn State University
University Park, PA 16801
Office Phone: 8148632433