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!

LEARNING FROM OTHERS AND BUILDING NEW YORK CERTIFIED ORGANIC

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.

Klaas Martens explains the advantages of the 45-degree tip angle on a locally produced tine weeder during a field day at his Penn Yan, N.Y., farm in August. Tine weeders, when properly adjusted and used, can take out tiny weeds within the row , even after crop plants have emerged. Good soil tithe greatly improves the effectiveness of mechanical cultivation tools, he has found.

INPUT SUBSTITUTION AND THE TRUE ORGANIC SYSTEM

As farmers learn organic practices, the first two questions invariably seem to be: "what materials do I buy for soil fertility?" and "what machinery do I buy to control weeds?" Though we too asked these questions at the start , we now know that an organic farmer can not merely substitute an ‘organic’ input directly for a conventional ‘input.' This ‘input substitution’ approach will not work agronomically nor economically, nor does it satisfy the long term requirements of organic certification standards. Nor will the other popular approach, "organic by neglect". Successful organic farming really must change the total approach to farm management, looking at a much broader picture, for every factor is interrelated and can not be isolated from any other factor.

Organic farming must be considered a multi-year, whole farm system where no single management decision or individual crop can be viewed separately. Short-term profitability must be balanced with long-term sustainability. For this reason, it is hard to directly compare the economics of conventional and organic farming, using the same criteria. What dollar value can be placed on the intentional enhancement of soil microbial activity, organic matter and structure, or on maintaining a soil free of pathogens that may limit choice of future crops? By carefully nurturing these and other critical factors, the productivity of the farm can be maintained for many years.

SOIL FERTILITY MANAGEMENT

Many transitioning organic farmers worry about maintaining soil fertility without chemical fertilizers. Under the organic system, soil biological activity is the main source of fertility. Probably the most valuable ‘inputs’ that a transitioning farmer can purchase are good quality soil tests and the assistance of someone skilled in organic soil fertility management to help evaluate the results and recommend appropriate amendments. On our farm, our soil fertility is dependent on cover crops and crop rotation to improve soil tilth, increase soil organic matter, increase soil microbial diversity and activity, and protect the soil from erosion. We also use moderate amounts of composted leaves, gypsum, composted poultry manure, and other approved organic fertilizers but we try to use as little purchased fertility materials as possible. Transitioning farmers should be very careful about using uncomposted manure, since it tends to increase weed pressure. Raw manure and rock dusts, such as rock phosphate, are best applied to a cover crop to allow time for the nutrients to be converted into a stable, available form before they are needed. In future articles, we will discuss how we manage soil fertility, how we interpret soil tests to guide our cropping and amendment decisions, and what questions we still have.

WEED CONTROL

Weed control presents THE primary challenge to organic crop farmers. Sometimes keeping the weeds from getting out of control seems like an insurmountable task. Organic weed control consists of certain cultural methods which limit initial weed populations and mechanical weed control methods that remove weed pressure. Practices that improve crop vigor, while creating an environment that does not favor weeds, will usually improve weed control. A well designed crop rotation, the use of cover crops and allelopathic crops, balanced soil fertility, clean, high vigor seeds of well adapted varieties, and improving soil tilth are effective cultural weed control practices. In future articles, we will go into more detail about specific cultural weed control practices, especially crop rotation and seed quality.

Mechanical weed control can be divided into 4 distinct phases of (1) Tillage (2) Planting (3) Blind Cultivation, and (4) Cultivation. Choosing the best tools for soil and plant conditions, timing operations properly, and being alert of changing conditions and requirements is extremely important for effective mechanical weed control. In additional articles, we will discuss effective weed control implements, key concepts about planning and implementing a successful mechanical weed control program, and weed identification.

ORGANIC QUALITY

Organic products are commanding a premium price in the marketplace primarily because they are perceived as being higher quality. Therefore, as organic farmers, it is our responsibility to work hard to make sure that this is true, and that all products leaving our farms are indeed of as high quality as absolutely possible. We can’t just do the knee-jerk "if its organic, than it MUST be better" response unless we are really sure that is true. Therefore, we must pay close attention to our growing, harvesting, storing, handling, and shipping to be certain to be certain that the quality of organic products is worth the premium price.

Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens recently purchased this feed mill and named it Lakeview Organic Grain. A cooperative community of organic grain growers in the southwestern Finger Lake region of upstate New York is making good use of the facility. Surging regional demand for mixed and delivered organic dairy feed makes the substantial interior renovation a good business decision. The mill also produces organic chicken feed.

VALUE ADDED OPPORTUNITIES IN ORGANIC GRAIN PRODUCTION

In 1996, Klaas and I have also started a organic feed business, working with NOFA-NY certified farmer, Norm Wigfield. This business supplies feed for the rapidly expanding organic dairy and chicken business in New York and the Northeast. In 2000, we purchased the old Agway Feed Mill in Penn Yan and have converted into an organic feed mill now called Lakeview Organic Grain and employing 4 full time employees. Our mill operation also benefits other area organic grain farmers, since we buy most of the corn, soybeans and small grains we use from New York farmers. For the right person, value-added organic businesses such as this can be profitable, but the financial risk is also greater.

ORGANIC RECORD KEEPING

In order to see the true cost and profit of farming, we maintain detailed records of all inputs, including all purchased inputs, time and labor, and all harvest, storage and sales data. As certified organic farmers, we are required to keep these records for our audit trail that we show at each annual inspection but they have a much greater importance that merely that. These records can show us where we are making money, where the cost of our inputs exceeds our profits, what we must do to be productive and profitable. Organic record keeping and basic National Organic Program certification requirements will be covered in future articles.

BUILDING THE ORGANIC COMMUNITY

Through our experiences with other organic farmers, we have become thoroughly convinced that building and sustaining a sense of community and cooperation is essential for organic success. This is quite contrary to today’s more common attitude in conventional agriculture of bitter competition. Indeed, universities and agribusiness companies have been telling farmers for years that the only way to survive is to ‘get bigger or get out’, and since usually the only way to get bigger is to take over the neighbor’s farm. it is difficult to feel much community when everyone is seen as a potential take-over candidate. In organic agriculture, we must recognize and carefully nurture a different paradigm of ‘we all do better when we all do better’, working together to better understand organic farming principles and to improve the overall quality of organic crops and food.

Organic farming is a viable and productive approach for small-scale and large-scale farmers today! It takes a different approach, a different way of thinking, but it isn’t very hard to understand. Working together, organic farmers can make significant change in American agriculture today!