no problem: Klaas and son Peter, 14, practice defensive
farming by staying calm and collected even when the cultivator
is on the fritz.
The Martens' Farm
Location: about 60 miles southeast
of Rochester, NY, on the western shore of Seneca
Important people: Klaas and Mary-Howell
Martens, Peter, Elizabeth, and
Daniel. Plus Robert Hall (employee/asst farm manager)
Years farming: We've farmed this
farm together since 1991. Klaas has farmed all
Total acreage: 1500
Tillable acres: 1300
Soil type: Honeoye Lima silt
Crops: corn, soybeans, spelt,
wheat, barley, oats, triticale, red kidney beans,
sweet corn, snap beans, cabbage, edamame soybeans
Livestock: sheep, pigs, chickens
for our own use
Regenerative farm practices:
diverse long term crop rotations that incorporate
legumes and small grains, under seeding all small
grains with red clover, actively increasing soil
Marketing: corn & small grains
are sold to Lakeview Organic Grain LLC, our organic
feed business. Soybeans, red kidney beans, and
spelt sold to brokers and processors. Some spelt
is sold as kosher organic spelt. Sweet corn, snap
beans and edamame are sold to processors who freeze
them under brand name labels. Cabbage is made
into sauerkraut and packed under the Cascadian
Farms label. Some of the oats, wheat and barley
are being grown from Foundation Seed to produce
Certified Organic Certified Seed.
||There are not greater or lesser PERSONS.
There may be people who appear to have achieved greater
or lesser levels of success at the moment. But moments
change, as do relative achievement levels.
||"In panic, our first inclination
was to disk up the field quickly to destroy the evidence
of our failure. But rain did come . . . surviving the
panic impulse and finding a solution takes knowledge of
the crop, the problem and the options, and some deliberate
||"Each crop needs different conditions,
so in a year of weather extremes, diversity means that
at least something is probably doing well."
||"Ultimately, our most important
crop is still upstairs asleep this morning . . . These
are farm kids who are growing up knowing that the farm
is a family and that they are an integral part of it.
Posted August 22, 2003: It rained again
last night. I lay awake listening to the rain beating down
in sheets against the windows, the rumble of approaching thunder,
watching the lightning flash through the curtains, listening
to Klaas’ calm, steady breathing.
Let him sleep, that blessed sweet oblivion, a brief and welcome
peace from the worry about the crops. There will be plenty
of time tomorrow to look at the hunkered-down snap beans,
their roots rotting in the sodden ground, to worry about the
sprouted wheat, the molding hay, the beautiful, heavy oats
lying flat on the ground. About not being able to cultivate
in mud. About another year of difficult weather and stressed-out
crops. About the hoped-for big harvest that will not happen.
For most of us in New York, this is the fourth year in a
row of disastrous weather. For many farmers, this is the make-it-or-break-it
year, the year we HAD to get a good crop. Some luck was due,
after all! But it isn’t happening that way. We understand
that many of our neighbors in Pennsylvania and Ohio are seeing
worse weather and that throughout the country, extremes in
weather are common and farmers all over are suffering.
This year in New York, the season started out cold and wet.
That was frustrating, but when the weather broke in June,
everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief and kicked into overdrive,
plowing, planting and cultivating with a vengeance, now hoping
for a long hot summer and late warm fall. Well, its August
now, with barely 2 dry days in the past 30. The temperature
hovers around 75°F during the day, not exactly prime summer
weather. And the crops are showing the stress.
One older farmer, John, came into the mill today with a bag
of wheat he’s just harvested. John held out a handful
of hairy damp things, the sprouts nearly an inch long. He
laughed bitterly and said with a sad smile, “Them aren’t
sprouts, them are roots. I might as well just disk up the
field and plant these as my wheat for next year.” He
and I both knew that it doesn’t work that way, that
his crop was ruined and there was nothing either of us could
do about it.
So, what do we do in years like this? How do we farm defensively
to survive through tough years?
Once there was a farmer who was trying to plant soybeans
-- he carefully prepared the fields and planted, only for
a cloud burst to come along and wash the seed all away. Once
the field dried out, again he disked and planted, only for
again for the rain to come and away went the seed. Finally,
a third time, the farmer got on the tractor, tilled the field,
and dutifully took the corn planter back and forth over the
field. Just as he was finishing the last row, the clouds opened
up. Standing in the field in the rain, looking up at the sky,
the farmer started laughing and shook his fist at the sky
saying, “Got you there, fooled you! I didn’t put
seed in the planter THIS time!”
That could be many farmers we’ve talked to this year.
Its mighty easy to get a little crazy or a little discouraged.
Step back and take a deep breath
We’ll get to the agronomics in a minute, but really
the most important thing is to look at it all with a little
more perspective and find something happy to think about.
Realize that the weather may be stressing the plants but it
doesn’t have to stress you; you alone can control that.
As Klaas said yesterday, “I am responsible for the successes,
I am responsible for the failures, and that’s a lot
of responsibility, but I am also responsible for my reaction
to it all -- how I choose I respond.” Certainly that
is easier said than done, but it is healthy to recognize how
true it is.
Sometimes you will do everything humanly possible to grow
a crop, you will work long hours, have the machinery set perfectly,
plant good seed and cultivate on time, and still the crops
will fail. Sometimes sheer determination and even great skill
will not be good enough. You need to accept that it was the
plants that failed, NOT that you, intrinsically, are the failure.
Farmers are notorious defining themselves by the quality
of their crops, especially when seen through another farmer’s
eyes. Their self-esteem is wrapped tightly to a vigorous field
of soybeans, a bin full of corn, the number of weeds in the
row. It is pretty hard on the self-esteem to have been last
year’s “neighborhood wonder” and now this
year have your crops look no better than everyone else’s,
maybe even worse!
But soybeans are just soybeans, they aren’t human.
We must somehow separate ourselves from that if we are going
to survive the difficult years without getting really depressed.
If you have done everything you could and done it as well
as you can, then the stressed crops are NOT your fault and
you are NOT alone. There are many many of us who have felt
the same feelings -- and lived to tell about it!
If you compare yourself with others
. . .
Several months ago, at odd times through the day, fragments
of philosophy started running through my head half remembered.
Slowly I pulled together enough pieces to recall they were
from a rather hokey popular ‘song’ from the 70’s
called ‘Desiderata’. Searching the internet, I
found a copy and was impressed by the pertinence of some of
its wisdom, especially now that I have a few more years behind
me to apply it to.
One line in the poem says, “If you compare yourself
with others, you may become vain or bitter, for there will
always be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy
your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in
your own career, however humble. It is a real possession in
the changing fortunes of time.” Generally, I have been
struck by the good sense in Desiderata, but this line is wrong.
There are not greater or lesser PERSONS. There may be people
who appear to have achieved greater or lesser levels of success
at the moment. But moments change, as do relative achievement
In times of stress, it is tempting to look for people in
worse condition and think “I’m not doing so badly
if Fred is doing worse, Ron’s weeds really got away
from him, Dave’s corn hasn’t even started tasseling
yet, and did you hear how badly John’s wheat sprouted?”
There is definitely a seductive lure to this approach. Undeniably,
it does make you feel better ... for awhile. But it is neither
a healthy nor productive response. It certainly doesn’t
make our crops grow any better, and it doesn’t make
friends who will support us when we have tough times.
It is also not productive to feel bummed out over the neighbor’s
Bt corn or Roundup Ready soybeans that are growing well. After
all, we’re organic farmers doing the ‘right’
thing. They, the conventional farmers, are doing the ‘wrong’
thing. Shouldn’t there be some reward or retribution
for that? Keep in mind that after they pay for fertilizer,
pesticide, and technology fees out of conventional prices,
your organic crops may actually net more income. But more
importantly, keep in mind also that they are farmers, just
like us, with far more in common with us than not. It’s
a tough year for them, too. If Roundup Ready soybeans are
what they think are necessary to save their farms, that’s
Real lasting contentment comes from enjoying our own situation
as it is, even if it is not perfect. Real contentment comes
from not gloating over the neighbor’s failures or agonizing
over their success. Real lasting contentment comes from working
with other people and having good friends, a strong supportive
community, and happy families. To be sure, sometimes it is
mighty hard to see any of our own achievements and success,
but there will always be some if we look hard enough.
When hit with a bad situation, remember that often it is
not as hopeless as at first glance and we are not quite as
helpless as we feel. We often add to our losses and make them
much worse when we panic or give up hope. Take time to calmly
think through your options. Our friend, Brett, once said:
“When the year handed us a lemon, we decided to make
lemonade.” If the wheat is sprouted and the elevator
will only pay $1.50/ bushel for it as ‘feed’,
don’t say “I’m going broke on this crop!”
Say, instead, “Wow! I won’t buy feed that cheap
again for a while, that’s only $50/ton” -- and
buy some more from other farmers. Sure, feeding wheat can
be a bit tricky but it’s worth $$$ to learn how to use
it when it’s that cheap. Besides, aren’t we told
that sprouting grains improves their enzyme and vitamin content?
We have a friend who will always buy lots of rye when nobody
else wants it. He sometimes can buy it as cheap as $1/bushel.
That’s only about $36/ton! Others might say: “You
can’t feed rye, it causes breeding problems or could
even cause abortions!” but as far as we know, he never
noticed any of these maladies in is steers. Seriously though,
Rufus knew that the problems commonly blamed on rye occur
when the grain is moldy and has ergot, so he was careful never
to buy moldy rye.
Though it is difficult sometimes to do, it may help to approach
the work as ‘little bites’ rather than ever-growing
mountain that will never get all done. Feeling a sense of
accomplishment when each ‘little bite’ get wrapped
up can be the fuel needed to get onto the next task and to
keep the panic from rising.
In early July, we transplanted our cabbage. They were pale
weak little seedlings that had been pulled too early in the
greenhouse on the west coast and spent a stressful 2 weeks
crossing the country. The first day of transplanting, hot
dry winds whipped the life right out of those poor little
plants and by the end of the second day, it became apparent
that many plants had died. In panic, our first inclination
was to disk up the field quickly to destroy the evidence of
our failure. But rain did come (did it ever!) and while there
are many blank spots in the rows, there will be a viable and
profitable crop come fall with some really monstrous heads
in the thin spots.
In all these cases, surviving the panic impulse and finding
a solution takes knowledge of the crop, the problem and the
options, and some deliberate restraint. Just feeding moldy
grain isn’t a wise idea, but moldy grain can be roasted,
sprouted grain can be dried, and baleage can be made if you
can’t get hay dry. There are plenty of old farmers out
there that can help work you through a problem -- they probably
have seen it all before.
Agronomically, our best defense against a bad season is
a diversity of different crops. We talked about this a little
more in our
June New Farm column, and the value of diversity is certainly
evident to us this summer. On our farm, we grow about 12 different
crops -- winter and spring small grains, corn, soybeans, processing
vegetables, hay, plus some crop mixes. Each crop needs different
conditions, so in a year of weather extremes, diversity means
that at least something is probably doing well.
Corn is looking real good but it will be late this year.
Corn likes plenty of water, so even though the snap beans
are struggling, the corn is growing. We’re trying to
spend some time regularly in fields that are doing well, looking
at the rapidly growing plants, the straight clean rows, smelling
the healthy dirt, feeling the air. In one of our corn fields
on a warm day, you can almost hear the corn squeaking as it
grows. It is a really neat feeling!
I got a call from a farmer in southern Pennsylvania yesterday
whose corn was failing from too much water. Knowing that his
corn wasn’t going to amount to anything, Greg was wondering
whether he could disk it up and plant barley/pea/oats now
to produce a fall baleage crop that should find a strong market
next winter with good hay likely to be short. This is creative
thinking -- looking at a bad situation and identifying a practical,
achievable solution. Other solutions like that come along
regularly if our minds are open to doing something different.
Diversification can also come from value-added enterprises
and creative marketing, especially if little additional time
or investment is needed. Lisa told me yesterday that she is
certifying her garden along with the farm this year so she
could sell excess cucumbers, peppers and zucchini as organic
to the local health food store. David and Kathy are using
some of their cattle pasture to run a couple thousand broiler
chickens and turkeys in movable pens that they will direct
market. Bob’s organic beef steers that he’s had
out in the back pasture are finally ready for butchering and
already mail orders are coming in from throughout the Northeast.
Equal opportunity stress
Farm stress on other family members may be different in
its effect and response but it is just as legitimate as the
stress on the primary farmer. It is a constant balancing act
to prevent farm stress from becoming real family stress.
Eighteen years ago, just before Klaas and I were married,
my mother-in-law-to-be cautioned me solemnly that ‘the
weather is never going to be right’. Suburban kid that
I was, that didn’t make much sense. Adverse weather
had been a minor inconvenience at times, but I never thought
of weather as anything serious enough to disrupt a family.
Suffice it to say, I’ve learned a lot in the past 18
One thing I¹ve learned is that whatever the level of
farm stress, the most essential job I can do is to maintain
normality as much as possible. This means carrying my share
of the farm work and the mill work in the background, attending
to the children¹s schedules and their normal parental
attention quotient, providing nutritious but flexibly scheduled
meals, and trying to let us all live an ordinary life as cheerfully
as possible, while being sympathetic, connected, helpful,
calm and self-controlled. No doubt about it, this isn¹t
always easy! And sometimes it is rather hard to maintain my
own healthy sense of self-worth when, after all, doing the
family laundry is hardly in the same league as pulling out
all stops to harvest a field of wheat before a thunderstorm!
However, I have come to realize that my equanimity is THE
greatest contribution I can make to the overall cause. Normality
and cheerfulness are very important, for it definitely doesn¹t
do a family any good when everyone is feeling stressed out.
What really matters?
Ultimately, our most important crop is still upstairs asleep
this morning. Peter, at 14, is tall, strong, willingly accepting
the responsibility of cultivating carefully and conscientiously
for weeks on end, learning about the plants and the soil,
shouldering the full-time work of a man and doing a fine job.
Peter knows that hard work and getting the job done gives
you a kind of pride that today’s world rarely offers
teenagers. Elizabeth, at 11, is learning to run the old Ferguson
tractor with the Lely weeder, her long blonde hair pushed
up under one of Klaas’ farm-caps to keep it out of her
eyes, enjoying the fun of seeing the weeds ripped up and the
dirt made clean. She also loves to sit with the pigs, feeding
them lambsquarters and scratching behind their ears. Daniel
is 7, growing strong and broad across his shoulders, eagerly
throwing handfuls of sprouted wheat to the pigs, happy to
come along when Klaas goes for tractor parts or to look at
Last evening just before dark, I stood with Elizabeth and
Daniel out in the orchard, eating peaches picked sun-warm
right from the trees, the sweet juice dripping down our chins.
To be sure, we had to eat around the brown rot and the insect
damage, but the flavor was incredible as was the feeling of
simply being there with my children, laughing at our stickiness,
with the damp mist rising around us in the golden light.
These are farm kids who are growing up knowing that the farm
is a family and that they are an integral part of it. They
have no illusions of farm life being peaceful and pastoral,
but they do know that it is a happy, safe, and productive
place. They are growing up knowing that both their parents
are happy being farmers, even when it rains every day and
when the snapbeans hunker down onto the sodden earth. Hopefully
they will also remember that we always tried to find time
to play badminton in the summer and go sledding in the winter
with them, to listen to their stories after school, and to
read to them each night.
If so, then we will have been successful.