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.
soil to battle weeds?
The proof is in the foxtail
Why is this field clean of foxtail except for
the strip in the foreground and the mess along
This field has always had a severe foxtail problem
for as long as anyone around here can remember,
no matter how powerful a cocktail of herbicides
Our neighbor began farming this field organically
5 years ago. In 2001, he applied gypsum to correct
the soil which was too high in magnesium but ran
out before finishing the last pass along the woods.
Since then, the foxtail is virtually gone except
on the headland and the area where no gypsum was
Did the gypsum kill the foxtail? No, but this
field is very typical of many in New York. The
high magnesium content makes the soil hard and
crusty. These are conditions that favor foxtail.
The addition of calcium sulfate (gypsum) raises
the calcium while lowering the magnesium, softening
the soil, making it less crusty and less favorable
to foxtail. When the soil environment was improved,
foxtail was no longer the plant "best suited"
for the field.
More than 20 years of applying herbicides on
this field were a waste of effort and money. They
did not change the soil conditions that were causing
foxtail to be the dominant species. A small amount
of gypsum was far more effective. Not only did
it get rid of the foxtail, but it improved the
growing conditions for the crops as well.
But don't try this without a soil test! Soil
amendments like gypsum or lime should not be applied
unless a soil test shows an imbalance or deficiency.
If gypsum were applied to a soil that is too low
in magnesium, it could actually make the deficiency
2, 2004: March comes, cold and snowy, but then suddenly
overnight, its Spring! Just a few days of warm weather and fields
of wheat change from yellow ochre to neon green, rhubarb erupts
from the ground like little red elves, the buds on the cherry
trees swell against the blue sky, and down by the pond the song
of peepers is deafening at night.
Today, Klaas was outside, striding across the muddy fields
with his old horn seeder with the soft breeze and sun on his
back, his right arm swinging widely as he seeds clover into
the wheat and spelt. As he walks across those fields early
in the morning when the ground is still firm with frost, the
seeder and his arm swinging smoothly in harmony with his feet,
Klaas is truly at one with the soil, the air, the seed, the
sun¹s warmth; he is at one with the land his father tilled
that is now his to tend. While the neighbor kid with his 4-wheeler
can throw seed on much faster and arguably more accurately,
this ritual of seeding by hand, first thing in the spring,
is truly an act of love that is the very core of Klaas¹
being as a farmer and as a human being.
Today, Peter, our 15 year old son, would like to be out on
his new used John Deere 4020 tractor, purchased this January
with years of accumulated childhood savings. He will pay off
the balance this summer with sweat, hard work, and concentration.
This tractor purchase marks Peter¹s entry into the adult
world of being a farmer; a momentous decision of ownership,
responsibility, and possibility--a coming of age. When he
sits on that rusty seat and looks over the dented green hood,
Peter knows the jobs that need to be done, the work that must
be accomplished, his shoulders broaden with confidence, his
gray-blue eyes serious and focused. On that tractor, Peter
is truly a man.
We are pouring over hatchery catalogs right now, planning
our annual poultry enterprises. Elizabeth will be raising
some designer hens herself this year, the more colorful feathers
in odd places the better, and Daniel is thrilled that finally
we¹re buying an incubator to try hatching our green and
blue Auracana eggs. But not yet! Despite the temptation of
a few warm days, we must wait for a few more weeks for the
weather to be reliably warm enough for the new baby chicks.
Just last Saturday, the children and I went up to our neighbor¹s
sap house to celebrate that particular rite of Spring and
get our annual gallon of strong, dark grade-B maple syrup.
Stepping into the sap house, the hot sweet steam and pungent
wood smoke swirled around us, fogging our glasses, a vivid
contrast to the sharp March wind just outside the open door.
The sap run has been slow this year, but with lots of moisture
in the ground, these past few warm days should bring on a
heavy run this week and good syruping conditions.
Springtime is coming, the new season is about to begin! The
machinery is repaired and much of our seed sits on pallets
in the barn. We are ready for spring to come! March in New
York is a restless time, an anticipatory time, hopeful yet
apprehensive, wonderfully warm days and blizzards, standing
at the edge of the cliff and waiting for the right moment
to leap. Will this be a good year with favorable weather for
a change? Or will it be difficult like the past 4 years? Whatever
comes, we are ready (we hope!).
Living downstream, thinking upstream
So as we wait for spring, we think and plan, always looking
for new ways to do it better.
The prologue to Sandra Steingraber’s compelling book,
Downstream, tells the following fable of a village by
“The residents who live
here, according to the parable, began noticing increasing
numbers of drowning people caught in the river’s swift
current and so went to work inventing ever more elaborate
technologies to resuscitate them. So preoccupied were these
heroic villagers with rescue and treatment that they never
thought to look upstream to see who was pushing the victims
In agriculture, in health, and in society, we are much like
those brave villagers. We mine our vast collective intelligence
and resources to resuscitate poorly designed systems and to
prop up abysmal mistakes. The arms race escalates as we react
with new pesticides, new genetic cocktails, new medicines,
new political schemes, and new social programs, all flimsy
and temporary band aids to conceal a fundamentally and profoundly
flawed system. Why do we so rarely raise our eyes to look
upstream and wonder why? Why do we not question the band aids
and look instead for the causes?
Conventional agriculture is reactive, filled with knee-jerk
reactions and assault technology. If you see a pest, kill
it with the newest weapons in the arsenal. Or better yet,
just to be safe, kill it before it even exists, regardless
of how much else you kill in the process. Then amazingly,
there are always more pests, more problems, to which new and
more powerful knee-jerks are applied.
This is a downstream approach, treating symptoms but rarely
considering the causes. And lest we forget, downstream is
where we all live--and it is here that we must deal with the
destruction and pollution caused by those knee-jerks. Rarely
do we see the connections between symptoms and their complex,
often subtle but inexorably interrelated causes.
Our new friend, Sandy, is a keen observer of people and processes.
He is seeking to convert his farm to organic practices and
has asked for advice. As a new farmer, Sandy is unencumbered
by the typical paralysis of “we’ve always done
it that way” and “everyone says it can’t
After listening to our usual rant on soil health, crop rotations
and the like, Sandy observed that conventional agriculture
is like ‘chemotherapy for the soil’. He sees that
it is quite similar to the toxic chemotherapy used to ‘treat’
a weakened body, already ravaged by cancer. By only addressing
the symptoms, both in agriculture and in medicine, too often
the assault technologies harm the good and bad indiscriminately,
ultimately killing the very organism we are trying to cure.
For all of us who have watched friends and relatives with
cancer suffer and die, as much from the treatment as from
the disease, this analogy is chilling and right on the mark.
Organic agriculture must take a more proactive and constructive
approach to problem solving. We must mentally take that walk
upstream to understand why the problems exist in the first
place. We must learn how to change our thinking, our reasoning,
and our management to address those causes and hopefully then,
the symptoms will diminish.
Jump-starting the soil revolution
Our friend, Dr. George Abawi at the New York State Agricultural
Experiment Station (Cornell University), is a man with a mission.
He is attempting to convince New York vegetable growers that
soil quality and soil health do indeed matter. This is an
uphill battle. After all, it's just dirt, you know! And everyone
knows that dirt merely serves as an inanimate container into
which you place seed, fertilizer, pesticide, water etc. Soil
health? Gimme a break! That’s not my problem. Let’s
talk about something pertinent instead, like why vegetable
yields are declining precipitously!
George and his colleagues, Dr. Harold Van Es, Dr. David Wolfe,
and Carol McNeil, have taken the same information on the road
this winter, hitting the farmer meetings with their message
of soil health with revival tent zeal. They have lots of eye-catching
Powerpoint slides and pictures showing how increasing soil
organic matter leads to reduced soil-borne disease and nematodes,
improved pore structure, aggregation, tilth, and water holding
capacity, greater release of nutrients and growth promoters,
and detoxification of harmful substances. And, ultimately,
leads to healthier, more productive crops.
Duh! Of course soil health matters and soil is hardly inanimate.
This is the most important concept of organic farming –
if we tend the soil and its vast and diverse living population
with care, the soil will then tend our crops. We must intentionally
feed these creatures with fresh, actively decomposing organic
matter and sufficient air, and create a loose, uncompacted,
well-drained home for them. We must plant cover crops to reduce
erosion and add valuable organic matter and nutrients. We
must rotate crops to provide a variety of conditions and nutrient
demands. We must take soil tests regularly to track nutrient
availability, and add benign amendments to correct specific
deficiencies. If there is ever a mantra for all of organic
farming, it should be “SOIL!”.
Unfortunately, soil health has a publicity problem in conventional
circles. You can’t buy it in a bottle, hire a custom
applicator to put it on or a molecular geneticist to jockey
genes for it around in a lab. You can’t go out and buy
it at the local farm supply store, no matter how much you
are willing to spend. Soil health takes time, the right operations
and serious intention. In short, soil health takes YOU.
Creating a healthy, well balanced soil is THE most important
thing we can do as organic farmers. But to get there, it is
first important to understand the biological, chemical, and
physical characteristics that define soil ‘good health’
and ‘poor health’ and to determine the operations,
crops, and amendments that produce both conditions.
Here’s a typical downstream approach to improving soil
health: You take a good idea—less tillage. Then you
couple it with chemicals, and thus is born the No-Till Way
that’s common throughout the Midwest (not to be confused
with organic no-till, which The Rodale Institute® on-farm
team is trying to perfect—click
here for more on that effort).
What are the downstream consequences of conventional no-till,
with its heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers and herbicides,
especially glyphosate (Roundup)? Recent studies at the University
of Manitoba have found a strong correlation between fusarium
outbreaks and glyphosate use. Fusarium is a pathogenic fungi
that attacks most field and vegetable crops. Fusarium is one
tough species, rapidly filling the biological vacuum created
by glyphosate massacre and reduced air exchange, perhaps even
stimulated by the glyphosate.
In grains like wheat, fusarium infection produces increased
levels of potent fungal mycotoxins, rendering infected crops
unsuitable for food or feed use. Apparently this effect of
glyphosate can last up to 18 months after application, which
means that planting wheat after Roundup Ready soybeans may
be a risky venture. This new discovery is of great concern
since glyphosate is used in conjunction with herbicide tolerant
crops on a huge and rapidly increasing acreage throughout
So, what do we do? Find a new fungicidal cocktail to kill
the fusarium so we can continue to use the glyphosate? Isn’t
this merely treating the symptom and not addressing the cause?
Isn’t this very common response just another example
of not looking far enough upstream to understand why the condition
exists in the first place?
While it is true that no-till does conserve topsoil and offers
significant advantages over heavy, repetitive tillage of conventionally
farmed soil, no-till is not likely to be the long-term, sustainable
answer that its proponents hope. No-till is undoubtedly “less
bad” than much of normal conventional farming, but is
that good enough? We are reminded of our favorite William
“Design is the signal of
intention. To design systems that are 'less bad' is to accept
things as they are and to believe that poorly designed,
destructive systems are the best that humans can do. The
ultimate failure of the 'less bad system' is a failure of
the imagination to grasp an entirely different model.”
There is a better way! Organic farmers can achieve superior
results of soil conservation and soil improvement with wise,
well-planned tillage using appropriate tools, with attention
to increasing organic matter and microbial diversity, and
with diverse rotations that incorporate soil improving crops
and cover crops. The Cornell Soil Program Work Team have found
that penetrometer readings, infiltration rates, and aggregate
stability – typical measurements of soil health –
are much greater on organic soil. We don’t need chemicals
that kill a host of unintended targets and create a myriad
of unintended problems. With organic farming, we CAN grasp
a new positive paradigm that is not merely ‘less bad’.
Walking up stream one step at a time
Before the season starts this spring, there is still time
to take that walk upstream and learn more for ourselves. As
we walk, we should ask ourselves a few focused upstream-thinking
questions, such as:
- What are the main weed species present on my farm and
what conditions cause them to grow vigorously in certain
areas? How can I alter those conditions to not favor the
- How do I provide a healthy soil with balanced fertility
that will grow a healthy crop that resists insects, diseases
and weeds? What are the best cultural practices and amendments
for each field on my farm?
- What is the best crop to plant on each field considering
the soil conditions, crop history, and future cropping plans
that will make good use of my land, labor, machinery, time,
- What are the best pieces of machinery for my particular
conditions and budget?
- How can I manage this farm in a way that is productive
and regenerative for the land, the crops, the people around
me, and for myself?
Spring is almost here. The snow has melted and the field
work has begun. May this be a productive and happy season