The Martens' Farm
Location: about 60 miles southeast
of Rochester, NY, on the western shore of Seneca Lake
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 his life.
Total acreage: 1500
Tillable acres: 1300
Soil type: Honeoye Lima silt loam
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 organic matter
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
||"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 restraint. "
||"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. "
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
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
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 their choice.
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
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 fields.
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.