How Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens
made the transition to organic

8 lessons our future New Farm® columnists learned in the last ten years as they moved to organic field crop production on over 1300 acres

By Mary-Howell Martens

Transitions: Klaas and Mary-Howell (above) recently, long after Klaas abandoned his white Tyvek 'zoot suit' and special green plastic gloves for handling pesticides and herbicides.  

Editor’s NOTE

Earlier this year a bunch of us at The Rodale Institute squeezed into a van and took off on a four-hour trip to Ithaca and the Cornell University ag building. Mary-Howell Martens was giving an hour-long talk on cultural management of weeds.

What Mary-Howell crammed into an hour left us panting: a bakers’ dozen of solid week management techniques, a half a dozen great stories, techniques for testing the viability of your seeds, and much more. The story of their initial failure with edamame soybeans, alone, was worth the trip. (More about that in a later column.)

The Martens are constant innovators, willing to try anything at least once, and willing to take a stab at a solution to just about any problem. Shortly after the visit to Cornell, Klaas sent us a detailed email describing the various weeders they use for different soil conditions or times in the cycle of weeds and row crops. And he specked out a tine weeder he could design that would work for our research plots. (Maybe we’ll share that email with you someday.)

The Martens are great neighbors, and we’ll introduce them to your neighborhood through a monthly column and additional reports and observations as they have the time. If you already have a question for the Martens, click here.



"I wish you didn't have to do that!" I was standing by the kitchen door, several months pregnant with our second child, as I watched my husband, Klaas, leave the house dressed for battle in his white Tyvek 'zoot suit' and special green plastic gloves, ready to attack and subdue the enemy.

"Me too, but what choice do we have?" It was 1991, the first year after we split up the farm partnership with Klaas' two brothers. It was not easy farming over 600 acres, just the two of us. Farm prices are never good, weather is always risky, but at least we had one advantage over many of our neighbors. Weed control was rarely a problem since Klaas was very good at planning herbicide combinations and schedules. In fact, many people called him for advice in his unofficial role of neighborhood pesticide advisor. In my job in the grape breeding program at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, I was also responsible for planning the vineyard spray program, so Klaas and I spent numerous romantic hours of our courtship discussing the relative merits of this chemical and that.

Later, after a long and successful day of spraying, Klaas would invariably come in the house with clothes reeking of pesticide despite the Tyvek suit, his head aching and a queasy stomach. We wanted to believe that it was due to 'just a germ' since he had been working such long hours, but we knew better. My husband was slowly being poisoned.

How do two people so apparently committed to the agribusiness ideal of American farming end up operating over 1300 acres organically just 10 years later? We truly believe that we were like many conventional farmers, using the chemical fertilizers and pesticides simply because we saw no other alternatives, but hating what it might be doing to us, our family, our land, and our environment. We farmed conventionally because we had been told so often that it was the only way to survive in agriculture today.

One evening later that year, we read a small classified advertisement in a regional farm paper looking for organic wheat. Immediately Klaas was on the telephone and we were excited - was there really a market for organic field crops? We quickly decided that we would leap at this new challenge. If there was a way to grow our crops organically, we were going to figure it out!


Since then, our education has gone into overdrive. Our greatest resource has been other people. We discovered a few farmers in our area who had been farming organically for years and they have been of invaluable help with advice, patience, and encouragement. We also have benefited greatly from the knowledge of older farmers in the area who remember how they farmed before the advent of chemicals. One neighbor, Cliff Peterson, is a true master at setting and running the cultivator. Without his patient help, our weed control would be much less successful.

Transition is a frustrating period for many people and without the examples of other organic farmers who are successful, we might have concluded that organic farming would not work. We are active in a local group of organic farmers, called New York Certified Organic, which provides an inclusive haven of educational programs, support and information for both new and experienced organic farmers in our area. Frequent meetings offer opportunities for us to share and learn from each other and from other experts on many important topics relating to organic farming. Many NYCO members are FVO certified, as we are, but we also include members who are certified by other organic certifiers or who are not yet certified.

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