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.
Posted August 31, 2004: The sun is brilliantly
sparkling on the water, the waves a gentle and steady rhythm,
and the ocean breeze is warm on my arms. The children, sun-blown
and tanned, are laughing as they play cards with their uncle
before lunch, my father is reading by the window, and I can
hear the murmur of my mother, aunts and sister talking in
Earlier in the morning, the kids and I had a wonderful time,
jumping waves and playing in the surf, the mighty Atlantic
welcoming its children back with open and familiar arms. The
vacation would be perfect, if only Klaas and our oldest son,
Peter, were here. When we planned this trip last winter, we
figured the farm work would be pretty much caught up by the
last week in August. But this summer's difficult weather has
disrupted all our careful plans, everything has taken longer
than it should, and they will have to join the family later
in the week.
We bravely started this year with the hope that surely, some
luck was due to us Northeast farmers who have been battered
by four tough seasons. Surely since we needed a good year
so badly, it would happen. Surely this year we could make
decisions and actually do the things that we SHOULD do, rather
than scraping by doing only the things that we COULD do.
Instead it has rained. And rained and rained. The spring
was too wet and cool to plant most crops with any semblance
of doing it 'right'. The tractors got stuck in the mud trying
to cultivate. Much of the wheat and the other small grains
lodged and sprouted before harvest. So little hay has dried
in New York that a dairy farmer friend recently quipped that
at least he's adding lots of organic matter to his hay fields.
And now as August draws to a close, many of us are wondering
whether there will be enough warm days left to mature the
corn that is just barely tasseling.
A season like this shows clearly how difficult and stressful
it is to make 'right' decisions when confronted with complex,
changing and unpredictable situations. The desired crop rotations,
tillage plans, timing for cultivation, and ideal percent grain
moisture at harvest just go right out the window when day
after day passes and we can do nothing in the fields. Probably
the hardest thing for a farmer to do is to sit idle, watching
the rain and thinking of all the work to be done.
Nuances in farming
This year's political campaign is spending a great deal of
time and money debating the concept of 'nuances', that is,
whether we should focus on all the myriad shades of gray in
each situation or should we attempt to distill issues down
to more clear-cut black and white.
||We farmers know well the problem with
gray . . . Most of our decisions are highly "nuanced,”
very few are clearly black or white. Farmers must make
careful but often rapid decisions . . . knowing that both
the predictable and unpredictable consequences will be
their responsibility for years to come.
We farmers know well the problem with gray, working daily
as we do with the natural world. Most of our decisions are
highly "nuanced,” very few are clearly black or
white. Farmers must make careful but often rapid decisions,
weighing benefits and costs, and then make the best choice
they can, knowing that both the predictable and unpredictable
consequences will be their responsibility for years to come.
A tough year like this one makes those decisions and their
consequences more difficult, mistakes are more costly and
wet soil is less forgiving. In hindsight, some of our careful
decisions look abysmally stupid, some look surprisingly brilliant,
and many have produced totally unexpected results. But tough
years can be valuable if we use unusual situations as learning
opportunities, trying to determine what factors caused certain
problems, identifying new diseases or insects, learning better
ways to cope with disaster and stress, and consulting with
older farmers who have seen and learned much from similar
situations in the past.
Trying to make 'right’ decisions
for the 'right’ reasons
Each January, we submit our organic certification renewal
application, complete with the charts carefully filled in
with our intended field cropping plans. We write down the
right rotational crop in our ideal cycle - "if this field
was corn last year, it WILL be soybeans this year, and it
WILL be wheat with clover next year." After thoroughly
studying our soil test results, cropping histories, weed pressure,
recommendations, and, of course, the OMRI list, we list the
amendments we plan to use.
In that ideal world of an organic certification application,
everything looks so black and white, so predictable, so "un-nuanced".
These are the things we know we ought to do, they are what
we want and fully intend to do. How can there be any doubt
that by August on Field 24, there will be a fine crop of soybeans
growing in soils that were perfectly tilled and cultivated
at the proper times, with amendments applied just as planned?
How can there be any doubt that our crop rotations will be
exactly as we so carefully state, clearly demonstrating the
superiority of the organic system in every way?
By mid Spring our certifier has reviewed our plans, determining
they meet all requirements and goals, and off we go. But then
when the inspector comes in July and drives around to look
at the fields, there’s confusion. Weren’t we SUPPOSED
to have corn growing in that soybean field? Why didn’t
we get the lime spread as planned? Wouldn’t it be wonderful
if those troublesome little inconveniences, like rain, broken
equipment, limited finances, and too much work and too little
time, didn’t stand so frequently in the way of doing
the right thing?
Making 'bad' decisions for the ‘right’
Nobody intentionally makes 'bad' decisions. Unfortunately
incomplete reasoning, incorrect assumptions, or just a change
in weather can turn what should be a good decision into a
bad one in a flash.
Take for instance our snapbeans this year. With all good
intentions, we plowed and tilled the battered soil in late
June, wet and hardened by the rains of May. We knew this was
no way to treat our precious soil, but we had signed the contract,
we promised a certain number of acres, and the seed bags sat
in the barn. The variety we agreed to plant produces top quality
slender petite snapbeans that make a really premium frozen
product. Unfortunately, the seed is small and weak, highly
susceptible to crusting and root rot, and on our organic farm,
they must grow without the chemicals that conventional farmers
use to protect against pathogens in cold, wet soil. After
two weeks of rain, the field looked like it had mange. Spotty
and ragged, the few scattered beans plants that emerged were
weak and slow growing.
The worst business mistakes
are frequently made in the paralysis and fear of indecisiveness.
. . When faced by a crisis, reaching a balance between making
faulty decisions and being indecisive is not easy.
In hindsight, we'd be money and time ahead now if we hadn't
planted the snapbeans at all, but we were trying to honor
a promise and a contract under poor conditions. It wasn’t
really a stupid decision to plant the seed; we probably would
have gotten a decent stand had it not rained so much after
planting. But the rain came relentlessly and the beans died.
At least we have crop insurance which is good protection against
decisions that turn out bad.
It is helpful to believe what a friend has told us, that
the worst business mistakes are frequently made in the paralysis
and fear of indecisiveness. Actually making what looks like
an undesirable decision can often be better than making no
decision, but when faced by a crisis, reaching a balance between
making faulty decisions and being indecisive is not easy.
Making 'good' decisions for the ‘wrong’
This spring, we reluctantly decided not to plow under several
fields of cover-crop wheat and spelt to plant the soybeans
that we had planned for those fields. These grains were planted
on erodable fields after sweet corn last fall, just to keep
the fields covered over the winter. When the Spring got too
late, Klaas decided it would be better to leave the cover-crop
to reduce further soil damage and add some useful organic
matter. Sometimes it pays to just walk away. It was with some
surprise that Klaas noticed in July that those ‘abandoned'
fields were heading up a decent stand of grain that yielded
We had a similar situation a couple of years ago when we
walked away from a field of cover-cropped clover that we couldn't
plow on time, only to come back to an excellent crop of clover
seed. As with the wheat and spelt this year, the unexpected
crop of clover seed made us more income than we could have
made by knocking ourselves out to plant more mudded-in soybeans.
We’re having another success with several fields of
soybeans this year that were drilled as the season got too
late. We decided to get these fields planted as quickly as
possible using only tine weeders for weed control. Weed pressure
drops considerably on crops planted in late June. Amazingly,
these soybeans are doing great. They may actually be our best-looking
crop this year. One point on this technique – when soybeans
are planted late, the amount of time for pod formation is
reduced, thereby reducing the yield per plant. Drilling soybeans
at a higher population compensates for this reduced per plant
Making a decision when there are NO good
Sometimes there are crops that won’t grow, grain that
spoils, or a piece of machinery turns out to be a lemon. Sometimes
there are sick animals that can cost a lot to cure and may
never be profitable. Sometimes all the available choices stink.
When faced with such a situation, it is essential to remember
that the loss due to panicking and making poorly planned decisions
can be greater than the actual loss due to the disaster.
||Sometimes all the available choices
stink. When faced with such a situation, it is essential
to remember that the loss due to panicking and making
poorly planned decisions can be greater than the actual
loss due to the disaster.
We’ve seen numerous cases of farmers who panic and
sell their slightly sprouted grain for any price possible,
afraid that no one will want their crop. Dealers will then
buy this damaged grain at a deep discount, dry and clean it,
and perhaps blend it with better grain to make a product that
is eminently salable later. Other people will panic and mix
moldy grain in with good grain, hoping to average things out,
only to be surprised later that the mold has spread and spoiled
the good grain too.
Being able to thoroughly clean and dry grain on farm can
often salvage a possible loss, especially if it is possible
to store the clean, dry but slightly damaged grain for several
months until the supply is shorter. However, mixing bad grain
with good is almost always a mistake. As we learned from the
old nursery rhyme, mixing bitter butter with good butter doesn’t
make the bitter butter better, but sometimes with a little
forethought, it is possible to make a bit of “shinola”
out of a not-quite-perfect product.
Food grade soybeans are a little different. If there is mold
of any kind, staining or off smells, we are usually money
ahead to sell them for whatever discount we have to take or
sometimes to even use them for fertilizer. Those aren’t
easy decisions, but it can be much better than putting moldy
beans in a bin with good beans and trying to clean them up
Sizing up the situation correctly is the real trick. The
first step is discerning whether you have an irreversible
or deteriorating situation that you need to cut loose, or
whether there is still hope. Being aware of all available
choices and their likely consequences, being conscious of
the hazards of panic, AND staying calm under stress are critical
in managing the apparently “no-win” situations
The real danger is making the wrong decision in the heat
of panic. Klaas’ dad used to say, “our first loss
is our cheapest”. We may choose to take a loss of the
crop to quickly stop a much greater loss compounded from more
labor, time and materials – or we may try to salvage
the grain. Making the right decision as to whether the crop
is worth saving is the key.
Consequences and connections
In his book and PBS TV series 'Connections', historian James
Burke eloquently shows how one event in history can impact
a surprising number of other developments that superficially
do not appear related, setting off complex webs of cause-and-effects
that resonate throughout human history. For example, he traces
the rise of education, books, the printing press and modern
thought in Europe back to the Black Death in the 1300’s.
This plague that killed a third of the population produced
a surplus of rags and old clothing, making paper less expensive
and more available for the first time in history. Education
in turn empowered the middle class, leading the rise of trade
and exploration. Just consider all the events, even in today’s
news, that have radiated out from that development!
Here on the farm, if we take the time to look, we can trace
similar connections and consequences spreading out from many
of our activities each year.
||Even though this year has knocked
us silly, we have to do everything we can to get next
year’s crop off to a good start . . . After all,
our good decisions have just as long-lasting consequences
as our bad decisions.
In order to get the snapbeans planted, we took the calculated
risk of working the soil too wet. Klaas fully knew the risk
he was taking but he felt that honoring the contract and the
probability of an adequate crop was worth the potential cost.
He thought he was making the best decision, but failure is
very stressful, both to plant and man. The crop insurance
may cover our costs this year, but it will not reduce the
expensive consequences that will radiate from this unfortunate
crop. The structural damage caused by a couple of hours of
tillage on wet soil will last for years, affecting the crops,
the income and the way we will have to farm those fields.
We know this all too well, because we’re still dealing
with soil damage from the past four tough years.
Preparing soil and planting winter grains for next year’s
harvest is one project we can’t let up on now. Even
though this year has knocked us silly, we have to do everything
we can to get next year’s crop off to a good start.
That means applying compost and gypsum on fields where we
have just harvested small grains, preparing the land and plowing
for winter grains and planting cover-crops on land that is
destined for spring grains and row crops next year. After
all, our good decisions have just as long-lasting consequences
as our bad decisions.
Good decisions, in hindsight!
One of our recent risky decisions has had truly amazing consequences.
In the fall of 2000, Agway offered to sell us the feed mill
they were closing in our town. After much deliberation and
worry, with very little idea of what we were getting into,
we naively agreed to purchase it. Since then the mill has
grown enormously, impacting so many people's lives in many
A few weeks ago, Laurie, one of our feed customers, called
to order her weekly supply of chicken and pig feed. At the
conclusion of the call, she thanked me saying "By doing
what you are doing, you make it possible for me to do what
I am doing." I've thought about that comment many times
since, about the customers who buy her meat and eggs, about
her family and her customers’ families, about the farmers
who grew the corn, soybeans and oats in that feed, and the
land that she and they are healing. About the 8 people who
are given decent employment by our mill and whose hard work
and creativity make the mill operate smoothly, about the animals
on the farms we supply that are treated with dignity, and
especially about all the people who make it possible for us
to do what we do.
In hindsight, the decision to get into the feed business
has turned out to be a very good one. This is partly due to
luck at buying the mill at the right time when the organic
feed market was growing rapidly, and partly due to an incredible
amount of hard work, planning, support, resources and risk
by many people who, collectively, have the right combination
of skills, dedication and interests at the right time.
The Most Important Connections
Spending a week in one cottage with 3 generations of extended
family truly puts the whole concept of decisions, connections
and consequences into an interesting focus. This particular
group of people here this week, ranging in age from 8 to 88,
exists because of the chance meeting of two people, my grandparents,
nearly a hundred years ago. That one event has resulted in
an expanding network that has included countless other people,
opening to encompass spouses, children and friends, and still
constantly creating new networks, woven together by love,
shared memories, real friendship, mutual respect and common
Within this circle, we share the delight and impatience of
childhood, the uncertainty, wisdom and fear of old age and
declining health, the endless work and attention demands of
middle age, the delicate balance of changing patterns of family
responsibilities and leadership, the careful compatibility
of people who inhabit very different worlds the rest of the
Within this circle, we hopefully can put into better perspective
the battered snapbeans and stiff knees of our lives, all those
little problems that command an inordinate amount of our attention
when we lose a firm connection with the truly important things
We leave you with one final thought. Many of us suffer from
an “either/or mentality” when it comes to our
decisions. We assume that either we have to be completely
competent at all times or we automatically conclude that we
are hopelessly incompetent. Probably the truth is somewhere
in between - usually we are good at most things, but occasionally
we do something that is astonishingly stupid. Most of the
time we really do make the right decisions for the right reasons,
but we tend to focus more, and agonize much more, on our mistakes.
Especially in a tough year, it is important to celebrate
our successes because without a doubt, they do exist!