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.
If you have any questions for the Martens, or any reflections
on the role of community in your own farm life,
share them with us.
||"Dr. Nicolas Lampkin, the Welsh
agricultural researcher, reported that mixtures of two
different crops sown together will often yield about 10%
more than if the crops had been planted separately on
the same acreage. "
Back in the mid 1980’s, when I was working in the grape
breeding program at Cornell University, I spent many weekends
doing volunteer promotions for the New York grape and wine industry
at tastings around the state.
their bases: The Marten's' have a solution
and a cover crop for every situation learn more
about why we plant what we plant.
The 1980’s were a time of great transition for New
York grape farmers. The traditional highly flavored ‘labrusca’
varieties and many of the French hybrid varieties were falling
out at favor, replaced by the more tender ‘vinifera’
varieties that only the most fortunate growers had suitable
land for. Many grape growers were saddled with vineyards producing
varieties that had little market and poor prices. In a valiant
effort to turn these unwanted grapes into money, a group of
farmers pooled their grapes and pressed ad bottled their own
juice, marketing it through grocery stores in the area.
I remember one Saturday afternoon, standing behind the Vinefresh
table at a large grocery store in Syracuse, I eagerly urged
a mother and her children to try this product. They willingly
took their free little cups of the pink juice, but set them
down unfinished and the little girl said “Mommy, this
doesn’t taste good.” The family walked away and
I had to admit that, to be perfectly honest, the little girl
was right. The juice that so many good people worked so hard
to produce and promote simply didn’t taste very good.
This memory has recurred to me frequently over the years,
as we have considered how and why farmers choose which crops
to grow. Do we grow what we want to grow and then try to find
markets, or do we grow what the market wants? Do we choose
crops best suited to our farms, or do we choose crops that
we think will make us the most money? Do we plan rotations
with the long term health of our soil in mind, or do we try
to maximize this year’s profits?
If you answered ‘yes’ to all six of these questions,
you score perfectly, because in reality, we must balance all
these needs and more. Identifying suitable crops for our farm
and using them to plan good crop rotations is partly hard
agronomic science and experience, partly the sheer luck of
being at the right place at the right time, and partly a lesson
in high stakes finance. It is also one of the most important
things that a farmer must do.
Crop rotation planning … for
the long haul
Many American crop farmers grow two crops - corn and soybeans,
or, if they are unusually lucky, "corn, soybeans and
Florida." To organic farmers, this is not crop rotation,
indeed, this is what our certifier calls ‘crop oscillation’.
With mesmerizing images of crops endlessly oscillating up
and down, tall and short, we know that we can’t get
away with this approach to crop rotation, nor do we really
want to. We do not feel that alternating two row crops provides
what is best for our farms and for ourselves. Nor do we feel
it satisfies the intent of the USDA National Organic Program
standards which states that crop rotation must maintain or
improve soil organic matter content; provide for pest management
in annual and perennial crops; manage deficient or excess
plant nutrients and provide erosion control.
So, to plan crop rotations, we must consider long term and
whole farm effects and address the following questions:
1. Which crops are agronomically well-adapted to my soils
and climate and will maintain and improve the long term productivity
and health of my soil?
2. Will my intended crop rotation control erosion, minimize
pest damage and disease, break weed cycles, and add organic
matter to the soil?
3. Will my intended whole-farm crop rotation produce a consistent
and adequate income over multiple years by producing a variety
of crops that have a reliable market and price?
4. Will my intended crop rotation make effective use of my
available resources, including labor, time and equipment?
It is important to recognize that a crop rotation that works
well for 5 years won’t necessarily work well for 20
years. Dr. William Albrecht, professor of soil science at
the University of Missouri College of Agriculture in the early
1900’s, studied experimental plots of different crop
rotations over many years. He found that when high yields
were the main goal in planning a crop rotation, even with
a variety of crops but without a regular addition of mineral
fertilizers, there was a gradual but significant decline in
soil fertility. Over a long period of time, too much of the
soil fertility was being extracted and removed even when a
reasonable crop rotation was being followed. In contrast,
we know of organic vegetable farmers, growing their crops
intensively on very small acreages and supplementing heavily
with compost and manure, who are quickly building up excessive
fertility, especially nitrogen. While both approaches technically
meet organic standards, neither is sustainable or productive
over a long period of time.
When considering both soil fertility management and crop
rotation, we shouldn’t concentrate simply on extracting
or replacing minerals. Conventional farming certainly produces
high crop yields using synthetic fertilizers, but this depletes
soil microbial diversity and organic matter, often resulting
in a long term loss of soil productivity. When Klaas and his
brothers began using large amounts of synthetic fertilizers
and pesticides in the 1970’s, they saw a huge increase
in yield, it was a very impressive example of the green revolution
for a few years.
||"Our crop rotations need to address
both the immediate needs of each crop and the long term
productivity and health of the soil, the farm and the
Unfortunately, these gains were not easily maintained. In
a few years, it took ever larger and more expensive applications
of fertilizer to achieve the same results. New pest and weed
problems appeared, and the soil became harder and lost its
earthy smell. Over a very short period of time, the soil changed
dramatically as microbial life and organic matter declined
and free mineral nutrients built up.
Our good friend, Dave Mattocks of the Fertrell Company, likens
the soil to the stomach of a cow. Whether nutrients are available
from the food the cow eats depends as much on the activity
of her resident microbes as it does on her digestive juices.
As these friendly microbes break down the feed, they provide
her with easily metabolized nutrients and keep her healthy
and resistant to disease and stress.
When a cow is treated with antibiotics that kill off microbes
indiscriminately or when she is fed in a way that upsets normal
digestion, she can become sick and her stomach may shut down.
When our soils are treated with harsh chemicals or not handled
in an appropriate manner, they too can essentially shut down
and pathogenic microbes can predominate. Inadequate or poor
quality ‘feed’ can result in starvation and poor
performance in both the cow and the soil.
Each type of crop has a distinctive effect on the soil, though
exactly what the effect is and how it influences the growth
of subsequent crops has not been well studied. It is known
that many plants release large amounts of sugary exudates
from their roots which stimulate the growth of a signature
population of microbes. A special type of beneficial root
fungi, called mycorrhizae, actually grow into plant roots,
feeding off plant sap but also providing water and nutrients
to the plant. It is undoubtedly due in part to these characteristic
‘farmed’ microbe populations that some crops to
do better following certain crops than others.
Crop rotations: the basic principles
Our crop rotations need to address both the immediate needs
of each crop and the long term productivity and health of
the soil, the farm and the farmers. Every region has a group
of crops best adapted to grow there, so we can’t make
actual rotation suggestions except for the area we’re
familiar with, However, in general, our rotations should:
1. Alternate legumes with non-legumes to provide nitrogen,
but not create situations where there is excess unused nutrients
that can leach;
2. Alternate row crops with solid seeded crops, and fall-planted
and spring-planted crops to break pest and weed cycles
3. Use cover crops and other crop residue that leave enough
high quality plant material to build healthy actively cycling
soil organic matter;
4. Employ deep shading crops and allelopathic crops where
we need extra weed control;
5. Alternate deep rooting crops with shallow rooting crops
to help keep soil structure open and assist with drainage;
6. Avoid bare soil during the winter and allow for bio-till
and low-till management when practical for erosion control;
7. Spread out peak labor demand over the year by staggering
planting, cultivating and harvest of a variety of different
crops and crop maturities;
8. Produce a stable and predictable supply of different high
quality crops over multiple years to attract and keep reliable
New crop—and crop mix—ideas
How do we break the great American cycle of corn, soybeans
and the lender’s office? The best way is to develop
a broad and diverse repertoire of crops. Certainly it is easy
to find markets for organic corn, tofu soybeans and wheat.
But there are many other crops well worth considering, especially
those for the human food market and for organic dairy and
• Barley, oats, triticale and rye are all valuable
in animal feed, and if managed carefully, can produce profitable
• Oats and barley are also enjoying an increasing human
• Many of the dairy farmers we know would love to put
field peas in their rations, cows seem to really milk on peas,
but there is very little supply in the East.
• There are increasing opportunities for organic fresh
market and processing vegetables. We have had success growing
processing sweet corn, snap beans, cabbage for sauerkraut
and edamame soybeans. These shorter season vegetables help
stagger work demands, since they are planted later in the
season after other crops are underway and often are harvested
• Sunflowers, beautiful as they are on a summer day,
are valuable as a source of both oil and meal, and sunflowers
are also powerfully allelopathic against many tough weeds.
• There is a strong demand for different types of organic
dry edible beans, like red kidney, navy, black, blackeyed
peas and garbanzo beans.
Crop mixtures offer some interesting opportunities. Dr. Nicolas
Lampkin, the Welsh agricultural researcher, reported that
mixtures of two different crops sown together will often yield
about 10% more than if the crops had been planted separately
on the same acreage.
• Some dairy and crop farmers are becoming interested
in a barley/pea/oat mixture which can be used either for forage
or as a high protein mixed grain.
• Other farmers are trying soybeans/sorghum, barley/oats,
and, in more southern areas, fava bean/wheat mixtures.
• European farmers also sometimes mix several different
varieties of the same crop to take advantage of complimentary
• There are several interesting and highly nutritious
root crops that can be used for animal feed, such as turnips,
fodder beets and rutabagas.
Cover crop and hay opportunities: There is a potentially
much wider range of cover crop and hay opportunities than
most of us realize. Each region has cover crops that are well
adapted to the climate and crops produced.
Hay also has untapped potential. At a recent NYCO meeting,
dairy farmers begged the crop farmers to consider producing
more high quality hay, since this has been difficult for them
to grow or purchase. Here is a ready market, willing to pay
top dollar for a specific product, as long as we produce to
the buyers definition of what ‘high quality’ means.
Dairy farmers also like high quality baleage, as long as it
is cut young and handled so it will keep.
The next agricultural revolution
Back at the turn of the last century, a remarkable scientist
in Georgia recognized that lack of crop diversity was resulting
in a decline in soil health, crop productivity and farm profitability.
He encouraged farmers to try new crops, like peanuts, cowpeas
and sweet potatoes, and to try new rotations, better cultural
practices and more appropriate machinery. He also helped to
develop more uses for the new crops, creating additional markets.
Weaving together new and old crops into a system that improved
the soil and improved yields, George Washington Carver revolutionized
the farming in an impoverished region and gave many people
hope. Out of his work, the infrastructure to handle the crops
grew, creating more jobs and opportunities. With all the resources
and advantages available to organic farmers today, we certainly
should be able to do as well.
As we start this new season, it is well worth considering
this lesson of George Washington Carver and to realize that
we don’t have to ‘wait for times to get better’.
We need to actively make things get better ourselves. Planning
improved crop rotations is a very good place to start. But
there is, of course, more to crop rotation than simply the
technical. When asked how he plans crop rotations, Jean-Paul
Courtens, the manager of the Roxbury Farm, a biodynamic farm
in the Hudson Valley of New York, says that early in the spring,
he goes out and stands in the field to sense what crop feels
right. Klaas too will comment sometimes that “this field
doesn’t want to grow corn this year.” Experienced
farmers will blend science, agronomics, economics and field
histories with that indefinable intuitive sense and then will
decide which crop will do best this year. And hopefully they
will be right!