A seed that hits its optimal depth range will
emerge from the soil at the correct time to grow
a strong profitable plant. Too deep and the seed
will emerge slow and vulnerable. Too shallow and
the seed won't have time to form a strong root
What makes for precision farming, organic-style?
To put it another way, what are the key components
of effective, efficient organic farming ... at
any scale? Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens have
gotten us started in this column with six ideas,
from precise operation of equipment, to careful
observation of fields and soil, to precise timing
of planting and cultivation.
We hope you’ll help us add to the list
with your own thoughts and observations. Later
this year, Mary-Howell and Klaas will publish
a new list of the practices that are critical
to precision farming, organic-style.
To send us your two cents, click
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.
||"We found that when we focused
exclusively on getting corn planted, regardless of how
late it got, we didn’t manage to get the soybeans
planted during their optimal planting window, which in
turn prevented us from planting sweet corn at its optimal
time, etc. We would have been far better off calling it
quits on corn when it got too late, keeping all the other
crops on schedule. Also, when the frenzy to plant as many
acres as possible means that weed control operations are
not done on time, maybe we need to re-prioritize our labor
and maintain a smaller acreage in better condition."
Several years ago, I got into
conversation with a big conventional Midwest corn and soybean
farmer at a meeting. Looking disdainfully at me, he declared
“I am into production agriculture!” I kindly commented
that any farmer not into production agriculture these days
wasn’t likely to be a farmer for long. Then, slightly
irritated, he puffed himself up a little larger and stated
decisively “I practice precision farming!”, obviously
with a certain image of a ‘typical’ organic farm
firmly in his mind.
Sorry, Bud, our tractors are probably just as big as yours,
equipped with all the same bells and whistles. But to us,
that is not precision farming, that is simply using electronics
and expensive consultants to make the decisions that farmers,
equipped with observation, intelligence and experience, should
be making. We contend that organic farming in general is actually
far more precise than most conventional precision farming.
But precision organic farming, as we will describe it in a
moment, is something that organic farmers should
adopt, regardless of the size of their farms or the sophistication
of their equipment. Electronics can be very useful, but they
can not take the place of the farmer’s brain.
A consultant friend tells us that increasingly, many of the
farmers he works with only get out of the tractor cab when
something breaks or they get stuck. They have lost intimate
contact with the soil, the plants, the weeds, the myriad of
organisms who live in the soil. Machines and electronics simplify
their ability to control but not to necessarily to work with
nature. This must not be where organic farming is
going. Organic farming requires the farmer to be a better
farmer, a more observant farmer, a farmer who practices
careful agronomy and conscientious animal husbandry. That’s
the way the organic system works, and we don’t have
chemicals to patch up the mistakes.
So, what is precision organic farming? We will list a few
ideas we are thinking about right now, as we are in the thick
of the planting and weeding season. No doubt you will be able
to think of more as the season goes along. Our email address
is at the end of this article - maybe you can help us compile
a working list of other things that precision organic farming
must encompass for reliable success.
Precision equipment operation
it looks nice but can it plant? To ensure
optimal seed placement and coverage and ultimate
return on your investment machinery parts must all
be correctly aligned and functioning properly.
We could spend a lot of time talking about precision adjustments
for plows, tillage implements, grain drills, and combines.
European farmers are getting double the small grain yields
thatwe in the United States generally get, mainly because
of their attention to every minute detail that goes into producing
the crop. For the sake of space, we will use adjustment of
the corn planter as one example of the importance of precise
At our April New York Certified Organic meeting, we were
treated to a valuable presentation by Andy Zalar of the Precision
Planting Co. in Tremont, IL on adjusting and maintaining corn
planters for maximum performance, accuracy and uniformity.
The corn planter is a complex machine with many moving parts
that must work together precisely for optimal seed placement
and coverage. Andy demonstrated techniques to check whether
the corn planter is level and whether all parts are properly
aligned, not worn and in correct adjustment. Worn chains and
sprockets may be working improperly long before they actually
Andy spoke of how seed opener disks determine whether the seed
falls where it is supposed to, and how the coulters, firming
wheels, and depth wheels must be set correctly for accurate
planting. Metering units should be taken apart and cleaned,
the planter should be checked for broken fingers and brushes,
the elevator belt should be checked for cracks and flexibility.
Retrofitting with shoes, firming points, specially designed
seed tubes or ‘ecentrically’ (on an angle) bored
gauge wheel bushings will often result in more uniform seed
placement than what the planter had when it was new. Trash
wheels in front of the gauge wheels will sweep away clods
and stones, making for a level surface and therefore uniform
||"Of all the money spent producing
a crop, quality planting is THE best investment to give
a good return. Differences in planting corn can result
in a 3-8 bushel/acre spread in yield, and in a poor year,
the difference can be even greater."
Why is this so critical? Our good friend and long-time seedsman
Art Scheele says that you can make more money at planting
than at any other time of the year. Of all the money spent
producing a crop, quality planting is THE best investment
to give a good return. Differences in planting corn can result
in a 3-8 bushel/acre spread in yield, and in a poor year,
the difference can be even greater. Art says that too often,
planting is one of the last things farmers think about. Frequently,
planters are not maintained, worn parts are not checked and
replaced, farmers try to run their planters too fast, they
don’t calibrate them under real field conditions, and
rarely do they get off the tractor, dig in the soil, and see
whether the seeds are actually going where they want them
Depth control is probably the most critical factor in planting,
whether you are using a fancy state-of-the art John Deere
planter or planting by hand in the garden. Seeds of all species
have an optimal depth at which they germinate best, depending
on soil conditions. Differences in depth can result in a 20%
difference in yield and have a profound effect on time of
emergence and seedling vigor and health.
A seed planted too deep will emerge slowly, vulnerable to
attack by fungi and insects for a longer time. A seed planted
too shallow will not form an adequate root system. A half-inch
difference in depth can result in seedlings emerging one day
later, while a difference of 2 inches can make a 2 day difference
in emergence, more if conditions are poor. A corn plant emerging
significantly later than its neighbors will never grow as
well, its growth suppressed by larger plants, and it will
essentially become a weed in the field.
We organic farmers must achieve uniformity in emergence as
much as possible for effective weed control. Since timing
is everything when it comes to effective mechanical weed control,
we must have crops that emerge vigorously and uniformly to
get our timing of all subsequent field operations right.
There is an old saying, perhaps largely forgotten in this
modern era of GPS, on-board computers and climate-controlled
tractor cabs, that the best fertilizer for a field is the
farmer’s footprints. Regardless of the electronic gadgets
your tractor is equipped with, nothing quite equals your own
observations and experience. There is no electronic replacement
for really looking at the fields as you work them, making
notes of where there are particular weed problems, crop growth
differences, fertility imbalances, drainage problems, or big
rocks. The real heart of precision farming is observation
- YOUR observation - and your ability to figure out what those
It is important to make connections between what you do in a
field and what the results are. We recently heard on NPR Radio
that the American media assumes that most Americans have a memory
span of about 10 days. Past 10 days, they figure that you may
remember the big events but not the details. As organic farmers,
we must have a longer attention span than that. We must remember
where a field was plowed too wet—the damage can last for
years, or where the cover crop was particularly lush—this
may have added extra nutrients and microbial diversity. When
yields are particularly high or disturbingly low or when certain
types of weeds proliferate, we need to start making possible
connections between what we did 6 months, 1 year, even 10 years
ago, and what the outcome now is. But it is mighty hard to remember
all this if you don’t write it down.
||"There is no electronic replacement
for really looking at the fields as you work them, making
notes... The real heart of precision farming is observation
- YOUR observation - and your ability to figure out what
those observations mean."
Sometimes you can learn more from a bad situation than from
when things go well. The year 2000 was like that for us. As
the spring moved into summer, the rain just wouldn’t
quit, days and days on end. In a frenzy to get the corn planted
and weeded in the few clear days between showers, Klaas worked
later and later at night, sometimes to 3 AM or more, planting
into soil he knew was not fit. But what choice did we have?
The weather wasn’t letting us do things right.
This siege pressure did result in most of the acres getting
planted as planned, but the stress on everyone was enormous,
and harvest time showed us something even more discouraging.
Sheer determination to get the seeds in the ground had not
been good enough, yields were low, and longterm damage to
our carefully tended soils was painfully evident.
All crops have an optimal time when they should be planted.
Once you get out of this optimal planting window, plant vigor
and yields will suffer. In New York, barley needs to get in
by the first week of May, oats should be planted by May 15,
corn should be all in the ground by June 7. If the ground
isn’t fit or if the particular crop is outside its optimal
window of when it should be planted, sometimes we simply are
better off not planting it.
We now know that when we reach the end of the optimal planting
window for a particular crop, we should move on to the next
one, even if all the acres we had planned are not planted
yet. If the spring planting season ends and still not all
the acres are planted, it will soon be August and time to
start planting the winter small grains. We found that when
we focused exclusively on getting corn planted, regardless
of how late it got, we didn’t manage to get the soybeans
planted during their optimal planting window, which in turn
prevented us from planting sweet corn at its optimal time,
etc. We would have been far better off calling it quits on
corn when it got too late, keeping all the other crops on
schedule. Also, when the frenzy to plant as many acres as
possible means that weed control operations are not done on
time, maybe we need to re-prioritize our labor and maintain
a smaller acreage in better condition.
Crop insurance is now available for organic farmers for many
crops. If you carry crop insurance and you get out of the
optimal planting window for a particular crop, perhaps it
is better to collect a ‘prevented planting’ payment
rather than to plant the crop when it shouldn’t be.
You certainly won’t get rich on crop insurance payments,
they generally pay at conventional commodity prices, but they
should cover your out-of-pocket expenses.
The core of making precision timing work is the idea that
diversity spreads out risk and labor. If you are only growing
corn and soybeans, like many conventional farmers, then corn
and soybeans must go in, regardless of the weather. Organic
farmers must have more crop diversity than that, and there
are good markets for a wider range of organic crops. The more
crops you have on your farm, the more likely you are to hit
the proper planting window correctly for each crop and spread
the work out to avoid stressful labor crunches.
Diversity also gives some protection against adverse weather
extremes. We’re seeing that this spring—which
is cold and wet. To be sure, we would like to have more corn
planted by now, but we are watching with pleasure the small
grains burgeoning. This may not be corn weather, but it certainly
is barley weather! Klaas remembers some old peasant wisdom
from his father’s part of Germany, Friesland, which
essentially says “when hay spoils, cabbage grows”.
A diversity of crops spreads risk - the more you have, the
more likely it is that at least one of the crops will thrive,
regardless of what the weather brings.
So, what if the weather is uncooperative and all the cover
crops don’t get plowed like you had planned? What then?
Sometimes there are unexpected opportunities that you may
find remarkably profitable. Unplowed cover crops, especially
clover, rye and hairy vetch, can actually be saved for a seed
crop. With the new NOP requirement that organic farmers must
use organic seed, there is a strong market for organic cover
crop seed. Clover will generally make a better stand of seed
off the second cutting, so if you are leaving clover in the
field, mow it in June and then be prepared to harvest clover
seed in late July. At about $1.25 per pound, a good yield
of clover seed can sometimes actually be more profitable than
a crop of corn!
The new NOP organic seed requirement is causing some major
upheavals among organic corn farmers. Suddenly the familiar
terrain is changing and the choice of varieties for which
there is certified organic seed seems exotic and rather scary.
What are our choices in 2003 and beyond?
- Hybrid corn - this year there are a
handful of companies selling organic hybrid corn varieties,
mostly developed for Midwest conditions. The price is high
and there doesn’t seem to be much choice for areas
like most of New York, that need a 90 day corn or less.
This situation is changing, more seed companies are recognizing
this profitable organic niche and by 2004, you are likely
to see greater selection and lower prices.
- Open pollinated corn - these are older
varieties and unlike hybrids that are highly uniform, OP
corn varieties consist of a wide assortment of types varying
in height, yield, standability, and other traits. Also unlike
hybrid corn, you can select within a population for types
that do well under your conditions and save your own seed.
Over time, it is possible to get a fairly uniform, high
yielding OP line, but if you buy OP seed from another area
and are expecting hybrid performance, you may be disappointed.
In general, many people report that their OP corn works
best for silage, it seems to be more nutritious, but it
does not have the same standability or grain yield of hybrids.
- Other Alternatives - we are working with
Cornell University corn breeders to test other types of
corn that may have value. The Cornell folks have a large
trial of their most promising lines out on our farm this
year to test their performance under organic conditions.
One corn type they have introduced us to is called a ‘synthetic’,
which is a deliberate mixture of a number of similar, improved
lines that can be allowed to intercross in the field. Like
an OP, the seed can be saved and re-used, but it is a more
stable and improved population than a typical OP. We’ll
keep you posted on its progress!
OK, sometimes it rains. Rainy days can be just as necessary
in the precision organic farming process as the warm sunny
ones. This is the time to catch up on necessary record keeping,
rethink planting plans, repair and maintain machinery, talk
to your banker and keep her up-to-date about what is happening
on the farm, talk to your seed supplier and crop insurance
agent, get re-organized and re-prioritized.
It is also a good time to check labels and be sure that all
your inputs meet organic standards. Several years ago on a rainy
day, by sheer luck, Klaas checked labels on a pallet of untreated
alfalfa seed that we’d just gotten in. To his surprise,
stapled to back of the main seed tag was another tag stating
the seed had been pre-treated with a Rhizobium inoculant - a
genetically modified inoculant. He immediately phoned our seed
supplier who was able to replace the seed, but some farmers
in the organic community were not so fortunate. They planted
the pre-inoculated alfalfa seed and are still living with the
serious certification consequences. Take time to read labels!
Sometimes they really can surprise you and they don’t
always say what the smooth-talking saleperson promised!
||"Take time to read labels! Sometimes
they really can surprise you and they don’t always
say what the smooth-talking saleperson promised!"
Rainy days are also a good time to relax, spend time with
family and friends, and to recognize that stress management
is absolutely necessary, but it is all too often neglected
on a farm. Several of the high profile farm sales in this
area during the winter were not because the farms failed,
they were because the owners were divorcing. Regardless of
your religious persuasion, taking one day off a week, even
if there is work to be done and the sun is shining, makes
very good sense.
Farming is a great way of life . . . but only if it truly
is a great way of life for everyone involved. For precision
organic farming to be successful, all members of the farm
must be working together, appreciating what everyone else
is doing to contribute to the success of the farm and wanting
to be there. When this isn’t the case, all the GPS and
computer monitors in the world won’t help.
About a month ago, Klaas called me on the cell phone, his
voice slightly shaking, and asked if I could maybe come out
and drive him over to the hospital emergency room, that his
hand was ‘a bit messed up’. While hooking a drag
to the tractor, the drag hitch over-centered and came down
unexpectedly fast, slicing deep into his finger and cutting
a tendon. The doctor fortunately was able to make the necessary
repairs, and with time and exercise, it will be fine. But
since then we have heard a remarkable number of stories from
friends about lost fingers, arms, legs and lives, of paper-towel-and-duct-tape
‘first aid’ jobs that resulted in serious infections,
and of many many close calls. Farmers are notoriusly hard
on their appendages! For precision organic farming to work,
we need to keep our farmers productive and unharmed. So folks,
as spring turns to summer and things get really busy, be careful
out there, we need all of you - intact!