"Perhaps the most radical thing you can do in our time is to start turning over the soil, loosening it up for the crops to settle in, and then stay home and tend them."
- Rebecca Solnit
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|| The Martens Farm: We All Do Better Together
Spring Growth Conference 2009
|Mary-Howell Martens (center) and Klaas Martens (right) talk with Spring Growth participants, including Eli Rogosa (left), during lunch at MOFGA’s Spring Growth Conference. English photo.
Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens of The Martens Farm and Lakeview Organic Grain (www.lakevieworganicgrain.com) in Penn Yan, N.Y., were the keynote speakers at MOFGA’s 2009 Spring Growth Conference. They have been farming organically since the early ‘90s and were the first in their county to do so. They now farm 1400 acres of organic corn, soy, spelt, barley, wheat, triticale, oats, rye, red kidney beans (sold to Eden Foods), cabbage for sauerkraut, and hay.
Their neighbors thought they were crazy when the Martens converted to organic, but soon asked, “How do you do this?” Now their road is home to 10 organic farms and their county has the highest percentage of organic land of any N.Y. county.
Their mantra is, “We all do better when we all do better.” Mary-Howell elaborated: “When people within a community help each other, their successes are linked.”
Questioning Conventional and Chemical
Mary-Howell had been a grape breeder at Cornell University and Klaas had farmed all his life. In the early ‘90s they started a 500-acre conventional corn-wheat-soy-hay farm under government programs “and realized we weren’t going to make it on the income we’d get on a farm that size with those crops,” said Mary-Howell.
“We knew,” said Klaas, “if we had diversity on our farm, if we rotated, that we would make a better profit at a lower cost of production.”
Klaas’ mother was a WW II German refugee, and his grandmother had heard Rudolph Steiner’s lectures, “so I grew up hearing a lot of suspicion of chemicals,” he said. His father used agricultural chemicals but worried about them – and died of cancer. Klaas himself, when farming conventionally, lost movement in his right arm when folding a sprayer one day. None of his doctors asked what he’d been spraying.
“It wasn’t until about five years later,” said Mary-Howell, “when I was re-reading Silent Spring, that I saw a description of 2,4-D poisoning, and it fit Klaas’ symptoms completely. He’d been spraying 2,4-D.”
Eventually Klaas regained the use of his arm. They’ve since heard of conventional farmers who felt sick every evening after spraying; could no longer consume certain foods; had headaches in early spring; or died decades younger than their parents did.
“Conventional farming is a sunset industry,” said Klaas. “Biology will take care of it. Organic farmers tend to be younger, they tend to have their kids with them; the next generation is interested.”
“You don’t find any young people at conventional corn” meetings, Mary-Howell added.
Switching to Organic
“My father never let us plant wheat without walking on clover,” Klaas continued. “This was an old northern European tradition: You don’t plant grain without putting a legume in it. We always made more money on corn that followed a clover crop.
“When we switched to organic, we found that there was a market for absolutely everything we wanted to grow. Organic farming gave us a profitable way to put diversity back on our farm. That’s our crop insurance. No matter how bad a year it is, there’s always a crop or group of crops that thrive in that environment.”
Organic farming also spreads out farm work and equipment use more than conventional does. Early spring crops – early oats, Emmer wheat, triticale – are followed by corn, soybeans, kidney beans and summer vegetables. By late August, winter grains are going in.
“Instead of this marathon of one or two crops,” said Klaas, “we’ve got a series of short windows when we can plant small acreages of a lot of different crops.” Because they don’t have chemical residues, “we can do a lot of things that we could never do before – mix two crops in a field; plant succession crops; plant cover crops… We’re only as limited as our imaginations.”
Reviving the Grain Business
After the Martens started farming organically, organic dairy farmers asked them to produce feed for their cows. By 2001, the Martens had over 100 feed customers and had bought an old Agway mill. Now, seven mill employees grind more feed than Agway ever did, and Lakeview Organic ships feed all over New York and Pennsylvania and ships organic seed throughout the Northeast. Mary-Howell noted that New York now produces a surplus of grain.
Organic farmers working together is key to success in New York. An oil press owner said he wasn’t interested in doing organic oil – until he heard that a dozen farmers wanted to grow organic soybeans, and another dozen wanted the meal for feed.
The next frontier, said Mary-Howell, appears to be grains – especially heirloom varieties – for human consumption. Management of the Greenmarkets in New York City has committed to sourcing up to 15 percent of the grain used in artisan breads sold there from within 100 miles.
Reviving the Community
When conventional, “get big or get out” farming dominated their area, farmers competed with one another. Getting big involved taking over a neighbor’s farm.
But for the last 14 years, a group of organic and conventional farmers has met one day a month during winter to address a focused topic, such as on-farm oil production. Many farmers have come to the group seeking to switch to organic production. They’re told, “You can do it. We want you to make it. If you have a problem partway through, give me a call.”
“It’s fun to farm,” said Klaas – especially with neighbors who want to help one another.
Find Sources of Problems: Roundup and Fusarium
Mary-Howell related a parable from Sandra Steingraber’s book Living Downstream. Villagers who lived at the end of a waterfall noticed hefted bodies coming over the waterfall, and every day they rescued and resuscitated the bodies. Never did they walk upstream to see who was throwing the bodies in.
Likewise, most conventional farmers never walk upstream, said Mary-Howell. “We’ve come up with all kinds of reactive materials to deal with the weeds, with fertility issues, with nutritional issues. Evolution works. We’ve been selecting for problems (such as weeds) in conventional agriculture.”
Klaas said to ask why a problem is happening, not, “What can you sell me to fix it?”
For example, why are so many loads of conventional grain being rejected for mycotoxins [potent toxins produced by fungi, such as fusarium]? Mary-Howell explained that mycotoxins can kill people and animals, but at lower levels they act as estrogens, disrupting reproductive cycles, causing pigs, for example, to act as if they’re pregnant when they’re not.
“We’ve noticed a huge increase in that [on other farms],” said Klaas, and the University of Manitoba has researched the problem, “but it’s really hard for their scientists to get tenure or to get funding if they follow this kind of research, because the culprit looks like it’s Roundup.”
When wheat is grown after Roundup Ready soybeans, said Mary-Howell, it seems to be much more susceptible to fusarium. The hypothesis is that Roundup kills a lot of soil fungi – but not fusarium, which can then proliferate and cause disease in a subsequent, susceptible crop.
“The reason Monsanto pulled the project of selling Roundup Ready wheat was not because the farmers in North Dakota were petitioning against it,” but “because they didn’t want people to figure out that spraying Roundup causes scab,” the fusarium disease in wheat that produces mycotoxins, Klaas said.
Years ago, he added, William Albrecht wrote that he thought fusarium was actually beneficial in a healthy ecosystem; but when other organisms are no longer present, fusarium “becomes an outlaw” and starts causing disease in plants.
Klaas said that wheat breeders suddenly have unlimited funds to try to develop scab-resistant varieties; and efforts are underway to make new fungicides. A more holistic answer would make more sense, said Klaas, but would not profit corporations.
Design Your Intentions into Your Farms
Mary-Howell said that William McDonough, in his book Cradle to Cradle, calls design “the signal of intention.” To build certain things into the results of your design (your farm), you must include them at the beginning. To grow grains without mycotoxins, don’t use a system that enhances fusarium; bring in more biodiversity, not less.
Mary-Howell also recommended Soil, Grass and Cancer by Andre Voisin – about diseases that can be connected to flawed agricultural systems.
Decision Making on the Organic Farm
To manage farms in a way that spreads risk and resists bad times, design them to use internal resources as much as possible and buy as little as possible. When you see symptoms of a problem, backtrack to find the causes.
Klaas said that when velvetleaf, lambsquarters, pigweed and soybeans were proliferating on a neighbor’s farm, the farmer was afraid he would lose his crop. By mounting lawnmower blades on a tractor and sucking up and chopping the weeds, he was able to harvest soybeans. But why were the weeds there – in a field closest to the dairy barn, the place where manure was most often spread?
These three weeds, said Klaas, are nonmycorrhizal plants that seem to grow better in soils that are high in phosphorus (P) and salt – soils that do not support mycorrhizae. Fields frequently amended with manure are high in P and salts. The solution is to haul manure to farther fields. Likewise, bringing in a lot of compost can increase fertility too much.
Galinsoga is the next weed in this progression, said Klaas. Get rid of it by growing a few crops of grain, which help remove P and put carbon in the soil. “I don’t think it’s the absolute amount of P that’s the problem, but how much there is in relation to carbon.”
Klaas said that a researcher at the University of Wisconsin noticed that in some of his trials, mycorrhizal fungi on the roots of crops slowed the growth of nonmycorrhizal weeds up to 90 percent. So mycorrhizae not only help feed crops but also help crops compete with weeds.
CSAs can rotate grains with vegetables to control weeds, as the grains draw down P, and straw and roots returned to the soil add potassium and carbon, and build and loosen soil – and the grains are another crop to sell to customers.
The Martens used this method to control velvetleaf on a farm they rented. By the third year, the velvetleaf was getting shorter, with smaller-diameter stems, and late in the season its leaves yellowed and fell off. Today they still have some velvetleaf there, but the weakened plants are attacked by a fungus, whiteflies and a virus and are gone by mid-August. Most of the seed produced is not viable. “No magic organic spray killed the weed.” Instead, the Martens created conditions that no longer favored nonmycorrhizal weeds.
The Albrecht papers, said Klaas, say that insects are present to dispose of plants that are least fit to live. He’s seen this on his farm where pests attack velvetleaf but not crops growing with the weed.
Rotations for Many Reasons
A crop rotation should depend on four things, said Mary-Howell:
1. Which crops are well adapted to your soils and climate and will maintain and improve the long-term productivity and health of your soil?
2. Will your intended crop rotation control erosion, minimize pest damage and diseases, interrupt weed cycles, add organic matter and improve the health of the soil?
3. Will your intended whole farm crop rotation produce a crop and adequate income over multiple years by producing a mix of crops that have a reliable market and price?
4. Will your intended crop rotation make effective use of your available resources, including labor, time and equipment?
“One of the big lies in the popular press,” said Mary-Howell, “is that organic farms are labor-intensive. We have two full-time hired men and our son, who’s working part time on our farm; and Klaas. I don’t work full time on the farm; I work full time at the feed mill. So there aren’t a lot of us, and we manage 1,400 acres” – and they roast soybeans, process some crops and more.
If you have a weed problem, said Klaas, look for a crop that mismatches its life cycle. If an early spring weed appears when you till, sow a winter crop, which grows when the weed doesn’t sprout and is harvested when the weed can’t go to seed. “You can really knock down the population – especially of perennial weeds.”
Soil Health: The Answer to Everything
“Soil health,” said Mary-Howell, is “the answer to every single question we have on our farm. If we have healthy soils, we’ll be able to control weeds, have more resistance to pests, have healthier and more nutritious crops.” Soil organisms – microbes, earthworms – are the livestock on their farm. “If we don’t tend them as if they were a high value herd of cows, they’re not going to do for us what we’d like them to do.”
“What’s killing earthworms?” asked Klaas. Conventional farmers say plowing; organic farmers say chemicals.
“I think we’re starving them to death. If we want something to grow, it needs air, food, water and a good environment to live in. We’re turning down about 24 percent protein [in green manures] – about 4 percent N on a dry matter basis. This is top-shelf food. Within about 10 days of plowing this, you see an explosion of earthworm numbers. I like to tell no-tillers who say you’re killing all your earthworms with the plow: Get out of your books and come look at our fields.”
Mary-Howell said not to ask what to buy to improve soil fertility; ask first what you have to do. “Correcting nutritional deficiencies is probably one of the last things you have to do (other than buying seeds). What you have to do first is improve the soil physical condition – improve drainage and decrease erosion with tiling, diversion ditches, contour cropping, sod waterways, etc. The NRCS funds a lot of this up to 75 percent cost-share in New York – up to 90 percent for beginning farmers and disadvantaged social groups. Conservation always pays. It’s amazing how important it is.”
Klaas added, “Do the things that are free first; cheap second; and expensive and involve buying inputs last. The inputs may work, but there may be other things you can do that will give you much better returns.”
Make your actions count on your farm, said Mary-Howell:
Plant fields of the same crops in a similar location to minimize road time with your equipment and to consolidate operations.
Plan ahead to minimize labor and resource competition.
Plan to have extra labor when it’s needed. The Martens have enormous respect for Mexican migrants – “hardworking, nice people…and hunted by the INS.”
Have equipment in good shape and ready to run as soon as conditions permit.
Ask for help when you need it – from bankers, insurance agents, other farmers. Develop a support network.
The Martens have three children – 20-year-old Peter, 16-year-old Elizabeth and 13-year-old Daniel. Peter farms almost 300 acres on his own and has been a speaker for NOFA-Vermont. “We’ve spun him off,” said Mary-Howell. Elizabeth, who is raising and breeding heifers using organic management, wants to be a vet. “Daniel will do anything we ask him to do,” said Mary-Howell.
Regarding people on the farm:
Family comes first. The family has to feel that it is their farm, or you will lose quality of life. And part of sustainability is that it has to be fun.
Let employees know they make it possible. Their commitment to the success of the farm is important. The Martens’ employees are well compensated, have health insurance and a retirement plan.
Friends and neighbors enrich your life.
Stress is due 10 percent to the event itself and 90 percent to your reaction to the event. “Come up with a plan because [problems are] going to happen. Often there are opportunities in these events. We stood in a field of soybeans during a hailstorm, and there was $50,000 lying on the ground. There’s nothing we could do about it. How you deal with the event is the rest of it,” said Klaas. Seek opportunities in these events. “One year we couldn’t plow a 60-acre field because it got so dry; the machinery got stuck in the cracks. Later that summer I noticed there was seed in that cover crop we’d been trying to plow. We harvested more in clover seed than the corn crop would have been worth if we’d succeeded in plowing.”
Do triage. Ask: What can we actually do something about? What can we not? Don’t waste time on the stuff you can’t do anything about.
Weed Control Specifics
Klaas discussed weed control during a panel discussion. He said to observe fields, record observations, and try to figure out what you did previously that might have created a weed problem.
Klaas loves using a Lely cultivator on sunflowers, soybeans and taprooted plants but noted that its hook will slice through the ground and pull out plants – including crop plants – with a branching root system. By redesigning teeth and working with welders, “we’ve turned out some interesting machines that will selectively take out weeds and leave the crop.” (See their Web site for articles on this and more.)
“I feel that there are three acceptable ways to kill a weed,” said Klaas. “Poisoning is not one of them.”
Pluck the weed so that it dries out (in dry, hot conditions); bury it so that it suffocates (in wet conditions); and damage it so that none of the pieces survive.
“We can take out 99.9 percent of the weeds in most cases if we have the right tool and we know what we’re trying to make it do at the right time – before the crop comes up.”
The biggest mistake that conventional farmers who are switching to organic make is cultivating before weeds are sensitive, and in the process bringing up a new flush of weeds. “You can end up with more weeds than you started with. Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their hair roots. They have to be in a stage where you’re actually doing something.” Cultivate when the largest number of weeds is in the hair root stage and when the weeder can still control them – but before the crop is up.
Klaas suggested putting a glass pane in the field to warm a section of soil faster than surrounding soil. This early warning system will let growers know a few days ahead of time when weeds and crops will germinate. Often he can weed a small grain crop once and get good weed control. He also added a seeder on the front of his tractor so that when he’s planting a cover crop, he’s weeding and seeding in one pass.
After the crop is up, shading by its canopy will help prevent weed seeds from germinating.
Farmers in his area used to say, if your wheat’s thin in the spring, get a horse and go out there with a spike-toothed harrow and run over it. “That disturbance and injury puts air in the ground and stimulates tillering,” said Klaas. “It will actually make the wheat thicken up, and it takes out weeds.”
Klaas also mentioned European research showing that planting half a field to one species, say peas, and the other half with barley or oats will give a lower yield than planting the whole field to a mix of the two crops.