wonderland on the Martens' farm: While their children frolic
in the snow left by this winter's blizzard, Klaas and Mary-Howell
take stock, do record-keeping and taxes, and plan for the new season.
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.
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.
||"Amending your soil is no substitute
for good agronomic management. Fine-tuning
your fertility if the agronomics are not sound is like tweaking
the carburetor adjustments when there is a blown piston. Take
care of the big stuff first! Adjusting soil fertility is certainly
an important part of good management, but you won’t see
any return from the adjustments unless your crop rotations,
choice of adapted varieties, tillage, weed control, and other
such factors are in line."
Years ago, when I was a
young child growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, my grandmother
gave me a beautiful picture book called Around the Year, by Tasha
Tudor. Portraying children enjoying quaint old fashioned farm-type
activities in each season, this book strongly influenced my view
of what I wanted to experience and to have in my life, as anachronistic
as it seemed at the time. The pages for January show children sledding
with homemade wooden sleds, roasting apples over an open fire and
||"January is named for the Greek god
Janus, who looked both backward and forward with his two faces
... the door-keeper of the new year. Our word ‘janitor’
comes from Janus, the keeper of the keys. The term ‘janitor’
does not carry much honor or authority in today’s world
but, as organic farmers, we would do well to consider our role
as ‘janitors’ - humble, conscientious and dedicated
caretakers, providing a healthy, clean environment and healthy,
clean food for the many people who are counting on us."
This morning, our children, bundled in many layers, have just run
out into the snow to sled on the hill going down to our frozen pond,
to play in results of the Great Northeast Christmas Blizzard of
2002, looking remarkably like those children in that beloved book.
January does bring a time for cozy and relaxing activities, with
the demands of planting, cultivating and harvest completed and the
new season not yet begun. January brings a chance to reflect, to
enjoy the people around us, to appreciate the warmth of home, and
to plan another season.
January is named for the Greek god Janus, the god of beginnings
and endings, who looked both backward and forward with his two faces.
He was considered the door-keeper of the new year. Interestingly
enough, our word ‘janitor’ comes from Janus, as the
person who tends the buildings, keeps the place neat and clean,
the keeper of the keys. The term ‘janitor’ does not
carry much honor or authority in today’s world, but the role
is just as essential and significant it was when it was when honored
by the name of an important god, Janus. As organic farmers, we would
do well to consider our role as ‘janitors’ - humble
perhaps and somewhat invisible, but critical as conscientious and
dedicated caretakers, providing a healthy, clean environment and
healthy, clean food for the many people who are counting on us.
My brother-in-law, David Gilgoff, tells us that the equivalent
Hebrew word is ‘shamus’, the caretaker of the temple,
entrusted with the keys, who was charged with maintaining both the
cleanliness and the sanctity of the temple. Suddenly our role as
‘janitor’ is growing! The Hebrew word, ‘shamus’,
also refers to the ninth Hanukkah candle that lights the other 8
candles on each successive night. In a festival that celebrates
hope and new beginnings, the ‘shamus’ tends those who
are in darkness and brings increasingly more light each night. This
too is a role we should consider.
January brings us ‘organic janitors’ a fresh chance
to plan a successful and productive season, to correct previous
problems, to work deliberately for a cleaner and healthier world,
to wisely use the keys that we carry for good, and to bring light
into the darkness.
One valuable January activity is to summarize the previous year
and to try to make sense out of our records, considering both the
successes and the failures. Yes, this means working on our ‘audit
trail’, both for organic certification and also for income
tax purposes, for the time spent on this is just as critical as
time spent on repairing machinery. Unfortunately, maintaining a
sufficient audit trail on organic crops can be challenging and onerous;
this is a NOT part of farming that comes comfortably or intuitively
for many farmers. But after 10 years of farming organically, we
have learned some pretty good tricks that can make it easier and
can make the information more effective to use in a thorough and
beneficial January review.
Before the season begins, start a different manila
folder for each crop that you are growing. Label the folders ‘wheat
2003’, ‘soybeans 2003’. etc. and keep them in
a convenient place. As you start the season, place all seed invoices,
seed bag tags, input labels, seed and inoculant non-GMO statements,
inoculant bags, contracts, correspondence, pictures -- ANYTHING
that pertains to that crop into its folder. If you used your own
saved seed, jot that down on a piece of paper and put it into the
As you finish the season, put all grading records, bills of lading,
clean truck affidavits, weigh slips, and check stubs that pertain
to the crop into the folder. If your organic certification requires
you to issue individual certificates of sale (i.e. transaction certificates),
file your copies in the appropriate crop folder too. In the heat
of the season, when you might not have time to file all the stuff
in its correct folder, have one ‘Miscellaneous’ folder
in the drawer too, so you can just dump in important stuff and file
it later. Then, prior to your inspection next year, it will be easy
to organize the records from the previous year’s crops.
Keeping field records is tough, but ring binder
notebook with one page for each field works reasonably well, giving
plenty of space to jot down field operations as you do them, varieties
planted, field observations, weed control information, and harvest/storage
data. Print out or photocopy your field maps and put them in the
front of the notebook in case you forget your field numbers. We
keep our notebook in the shop or carry it around in the cab of the
tractor. Where there are particular weed problems, or a big rock
that needs to be dug out, this is marked in the book. Locations
of dead furrows and back furrows are also marked, since they may
be difficult to see later in small grains and cover crops. For the
technologically advanced, a Palm Pilot or data logger can replace
the notebook, but we like having the hard copy out in the field
and transfer it to the computer later.
At the end of the season, make a Master Crop List
for each crop. List all your fields of a given crop, figuring up
total acreage. Then record the harvested quantity, the storage destinations,
and all sales information. Summarize all sales with date, amount,
buyer, price, etc. This doesn’t really take long when all
the information you need is in each folder.
You can then use this information to calculate your Cost
of Production of each crop, and to figure if you have made
money on it! For each crop, list:
- All purchased inputs, including seed, organic fertilizers, inoculant,
lime, compost, and all other inputs, figuring how much you used
per acre, multiplied by the number of acres and the cost per unit.
Remember to include your organic certification costs!
- Machinery and labor costs by using typical custom rates for
as many of the operations as possible, including harvest. Our
local farm papers routinely list typical area custom rates per
acre for most field operations. For each crop, list all the operations
you performed, multiply by the number of acres, and then calculate
the cost at custom rates, as if you had hired the work done.
- You can estimate land costs by figuring what rent for equivalent
land would be or if you own your land, use a reasonable interest
rate times the current value of your land.
Add it all up - that is your Cost of Production. Now divide by
what you were paid for the crop. Did you make a profit on the crop?
Were any fields noticeably lower in profit either due to low yield
or high input costs? Try to determine which fields made the most
profit and project how you can use that information to increase
profit on the rest of the fields.
An organic farmer often faces another cost that can quite high.
Unlike conventional farmers who can take their grain to the elevator
shortly after harvest and be done with it, organic farmers may be
required to wait 6-8 months before the buyer calls for delivery.
Often payment comes only after delivery. The farmer must be sure
that there will be adequate cash flow to cover those months before
payment, and short term operating loans may be necessary. If so,
this should be considered part of the cost of production. Additionally,
the longer the crop is stored, there may be additional storage loss
and cleanout, resulting in a lower payment than if the crop was
delivered upon harvest. Again, this shrink must be accurately accounted
for in the cost of production. Therefore, you might want to also
add the marketing costs for the crop:
- Storage costs - remember to add additional storage costs the
longer you store a crop until sale, including any increased storage
loss and the interest on the money you could have made if you
had sold at harvest.
- Trucking and delivery to buyer if this is required.
NOW -- did you make a profit on each of your crops?
January also brings a time for planning. You probably have been
around organics long enough now to realize that soil fertility management
is the key to high quality crops and good weed control, but when
you walk out into your fields and look at your crops and the soil,
how do you know whether you need to adjust your fertility, on which
fields, with what materials, how much and when?
This is the heart of the matter -- you know it's
important to do soil fertility management right, but what exactly
Clues that you may need some soil fertility intervention
- Look at the weeds
-- can you identify certain prevalent species? The presence of
certain weeds can be a clear indicator that key chemical components
may be out of balance in the soil. If you have large vigorous
populations of weeds that prefer hard compacted soil (foxtail)
or that prefer soils with excessive nutrients (lambsquarters,
pigweed), this can suggest needed fertility correction.
- Look at the soil
-- does the soil look soft and mellow, or is it hard and crusty?
Does the cultivator and plow go in easily, even if the soil is
dry? Are there plentiful earthworm holes? Does it smell good -
or not at all? When the soil is wet, is it still loose and crumbly,
or is it pasty and slimy?
- Look at your crops
-- do they grow vigorously, competing strongly against the weeds,
are the leaves a healthy green and the stems strong? Or do your
plants lodge easily, do the leaves show yellow or purple streaking
especially when under drought stress? Which are more prolific
- the beneficial or harmful insects?
BUT KEEP THIS IN MIND!! Amending your soil is no substitute for
good agronomic management. Fine-tuning your fertility if the agronomics
are not sound is like tweaking the carburetor adjustments when there
is a blown piston. Take care of the big stuff first! Adjusting soil
fertility is certainly an important part of good management, but
you won’t see any return from the adjustments unless your
crop rotations, choice of adapted varieties, tillage, weed control,
and other such factors are in line. And, for the most part, you
don’t have to purchase these other factors!
Testing, testing . . .
Many people don’t realize that a soil test is NOT absolute
calculation of all available nutrients in the soil. Actually a soil
test is merely approximation of the nutrients that may be available
to a growing plant under normal growing conditions. Soil tests can
be extremely valuable in planning soil fertility management, but
unless you actively use the soil test results, then they become
just very expensive pieces of paper in your audit trail folder.
Soil tests are not all the same.
Soil test results are highly dependent on the method
of chemical extraction. That is why different labs will come up
with different results. There is no absolute ‘right’
way to simulate the availability of nutrients, and the different
extraction techniques all have some validity, though some methods
may be more useful than others in a particular situation. It is
important to select a soil testing lab that uses the best technique
to plan effective fertility management on an organic farm. Researchers
at Rodale in the 1980’s took one sample of soil and sent it
off to 70 different labs . . . and got 70 very different results.
Indeed, the pH of the sample ranged from 4.7 to 6.9 with lime recommendations
ranging from 0 to 7 tons per acre! Readings and recommendations
for NPK and micronutrients were equally variable.
Calibrate the results. You
need to work with a lab that is familiar with organic farming and
with your general geographic area, and then compare your results
year to year from that lab, rather than trying a different lab each
year. It is also a good idea to calibrate any lab’s results
to your own farm by taking a soil test from one of your best producing
and most manageable/well managed fields. This will give you an approximation
of what a good soil test from that lab should look like, and give
you a better idea of what you might want to see on tests for your
Get % base saturation data.
It is useful to get information on CEC, soil organic matter and
% base saturation for cations such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium,
as well as micronutrient levels. For organic farmers, base saturation
is a more useful measurement than pH. pH simply compares the percent
of hydrogen ions to the percent of other cations in the soil - the
lower the pH, the higher the number of H+ ions. In contrast, base
saturation tells us which actual cations, especially Ca and Mg,
are present and in what relative quantities. This is critical to
those of us who are using the Albrecht method to balance the calcium
to magnesium ratio.
Conventional soil test recommendations
won't fly. It is important to interpret soil tests
for the organic farming production system model. Most soil testing
labs only recommend units of chemical fertilizer based on plant
response in a conventional system, though it is not uncommon for
labs to liberally recommend ‘insurance’ or excessive
fertilizer that may not be necessary and may not be correlated with
any crop response data. Conventional soil test recommendations may
not be particularly applicable in the organic system. It will usually
be FAR too expensive to apply a recommended number of NPK units
using typical low-analysis organic amendments and it is usually
Organic fertilizers tend to have lower analysis numbers because
the ingredients used in organic fertilizers do not contain large
amounts of water soluble nutrients. Organic fertilizers are generally
made of complex organic and inorganic products, such as compost,
clay, rock dusts and/or seaweed. These products contain a lot of
other material that do not add significantly to the water soluble
NPK analysis numbers on the label, but are still valuable sources
of nutrients, especially over a longer period of time.
The nutrients are indeed present, but they are not rapidly released
into the soil and tend to be more dependent on the rest of the soil
environment. An organic fertilizer label that lists the analysis
as ‘3-2-1” doesn’t mean that the product is 94%
worthless. It just means that only 6% of the NPK fertility is considered
water soluble by the usual synthetic fertilizer analysis techniques,
as required by law. The rest will become available over time, and
many nutrients will also become more available when a soil is limed.
The real source of soil fertility.
Especially in an organic system, there is more to soil fertility
than NPK and there is much more to soil fertility than just going
out and buying stuff. The real source of soil fertility and soil
health is the microbial activity of the soil and the activity of
the soil organic matter. Organic matter and a healthy diverse microbial
population will provide important plant nutrients, improve the cycling
of nutrients in the soil, improve soil structure and tilth, stimulate
crop plant rooting, provide microbial competition to keep pathogens
in check, darken the soil so it warms up earlier in the spring,
and buffers the soil against drastic changes in chemical composition.
Usually organic matter doesn’t need to be purchased - you
can grow it yourself! Cover crops, green manures, animal manures
and returning substantial crop residue all add significant amounts
of organic matter while harvesting straw or corn silage removes
quite a lot of organic matter. Composted leaves, crop residue, and
other plant material are great sources of both organic matter and
microbial diversity. Hay adds organic matter but it can remove lots
of minerals from the soil over a number of years if the hay is sold
off the farm.
The children have just come in from sledding, pink cheeked and noisy,
ready for hot cocoa and dry clothes. The quiet of the house and
the peace of the moment are shattered, Mom is back on duty! But
still January reflections continue.
Most cultures have special traditions to commemorate the New Year
and insure future prosperity. My North Carolinian family background
means that on January 1, we will be eating collard greens and black
eyed peas to guarantee an abundance of coins and green stuff in
the coming year. We assure the children that the worse the collard
greens taste, the more prodigious the quantity of the green stuff
they will bring (hopefully not weeds!). But no one in our family
needs to be urged to eat the “Hoppin’ Daniel”,
our spin on the Southern favorite, Hoppin’ John. Black eyed
peas, black beans, garbanzo beans, wild rice, brown rice - all organic
of course, flavored with our good smoky homegrown bacon, onions,
a little balsamic vinegar, a little garlic, a little red pepper
- mmmm, make enough for seconds!
January is also traditionally the time for something else in the
farming community, something that is far more frightening for most
of us, striking into the inner darkness of our souls and, in our
fear, not always eliciting the most honorable or thoughtful emotions
and reactions. This is usually the time when farm auctions are planned
Yesterday, Klaas came inside with the disturbing news that one
of the large conventional vegetable farms just north of us, good
people who farm some of the richest land in the country, will be
holding an auction this winter. They have decided to sell out now
rather than to lose any more money. A year ago, several other of
these premier vegetable farms made the same decision. Four years
of disastrous weather and prices are taking their toll, and everyone
in our rural community, whether we are organic or conventional farmers
or support businesses, are the losers.
In an agricultural community battered by discouragement and failure,
by environmental pollution, declining yields, crushing debt and
insufficient prices, we organic janitors need to realize that among
the keys that we carry are the ones for success, productivity, health,
light and hope. We must learn how better to use these keys, and
like all good janitors, we must use our keys wisely, and with humility.
Previous Letters from New
December 2, 2002: The gift of community
November 4, 2002: Reflections at harvest time, with