Evening comes early in late
fall of 2001 on the Martens
farm. You may not be able to see it, but there's
a clover cover crop showing at the left side of the picture.
This clover was frost-seeded into the 2001 spelt crop. It
was plowed under in the spring of 2002, producing ample nitrogen
to support a good crop of cabbage in 2002.
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 weed 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.
So we asked the Martens to share their wisdom,
stories and innovations with us through a regular
monthly column. This is the first in what we think
will be a practical and inspiring series of essays
from two observant and committed farmers who care
about stewardship AND profit.
If you have any questions for the Martens,
share them with us.
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.
brilliance of October is rapidly fading to the damp faded
ochre of November. Most of the time, skies are heavy and gray,
and night comes early. We are nearly done harvesting our corn.
Yields aren’t great, but its good to see the crop get
harvested. The combine has predictably broken at inconvenient
intervals. Why is it that combines never break during the
rest of the year when we don’t need them so critically?
Slowly we are chugging through the harvest and soon the 2002
crop will be all safely stowed away in the grain bins.
For farmers in many parts of the United States, this season
has been a difficult one, plagued with too much rain in the
spring, followed by a profound drought through the summer.
For many New York farmers, this is the fourth year in a row
that their region has been declared a Federal Agricultural
Disaster Area. And to be honest, this is getting just a little
bit old! Organic farmers have fared a little better during
this drought because the higher organic matter levels in our
soils tend to hold water for weeks past when conventional
crops were showing drought stress, but eventually even our
resilient organic soils run out of water and the crops suffer.
The approach of Thanksgiving brings to mind harvest celebrations
which are deeply ingrained in our cultural traditions but
increasingly have little real meaning to the vast majority
of the population. Indeed, we farmers may have a rather rare
perspective on celebrating this harvest holiday. We know there
is far more to Thanksgiving than a groaning table of rich
food. We know that the abundance of our harvest is not something
that we can ever take for granted. So many things that are
completely out of our control can and often will go wrong.
But when November comes and our crop is safely stored away
or sold in good condition, we know this indeed is something
to be deeply thankful for.
I recall one romantic Thanksgiving back when Klaas and I
were first married. We took a break briefly for the family
dinner, but the rest of the day I handed wrenches and repair
parts to Klaas who was somewhere under our aging combine,
and retrieved dropped bolts and tools from the icy water in
the furrows. By that evening, the combine was going again
and we harvested the field, the big machine swaying and roaring
like a huge ship, gliding across the sea of darkened corn,
the dust, corn husks and snow flurries blowing past in the
powerful headlights. As we watched the corn surge out of the
auger into the wagon, we truly felt thanksgiving for this
Insuring quality at harvest
As we harvest, we must be very conscious of that we are handling
yet another fragile commodity - quality. Studies show that
most consumers who buy organic products do so because they
believe it is higher quality. It is imperative therefore for
organic farmers to focus on producing and maintaining high
Certainly grain crops, such as wheat, corn and soybeans,
are less fragile than many of the crops that organic farmers
handle. But this doesn’t mean we can be careless! Grains
must be harvested with properly adjusted equipment, handled
gently to prevent post-harvest damage, cleaned if necessary
to remove excess weeds and other foreign material, and dried
to an appropriate moisture level for safe storage. Storage
facilities and transport equipment should be clean, tight
and properly prepared. Each type of grain has unique harvest,
handling and storage requirements that must be taken into
account. If you intend to store grains for longer than 6 months,
corn should go into the bin at no more than 14% moisture,
wheat should be at 13%, and soybeans should be at 12%.
it seems like we’ll never have
a ‘normal’ year again, and that makes
rotations much more difficult. However, we need
the goals we are
trying the achieve
with crop rotation,
and then try to choose crops that best fit those
goals and match the weather."
The first years we grew dark red kidney beans were a real
learning experience. If ever there was a finicky crop, kidney
beans are that! Growing them is the easy part. It is the harvest,
handling and storage that can quickly turn bright attractive
beans into sheer garbage. If beans are too wet, they will
mold and bloat. If they are too dry, they will crack. If they
are banged around or dropped, they will crack or the skins
will develop small nicks, or ‘checks’, that will
cause the beans to burst when they are canned. We learned
quickly that if we wanted to grow acceptable organic kidney
beans, we needed to invest in an extensive line of specialized
equipment, a bean puller, windrower, a special combine, a
flat-bed dryer and even a beltveyor. Has it been worth the
trouble? Organic kidney beans are a high value crop, our buyers
will pay well if the beans are of sufficient quality. If we
want to expect that premium price for the product, we have
to be willing to make the investment of equipment, time and
extra care to produce the required quality. Most years, the
rewards for working hard to produce a high quality product
will pay off well.
Plan the next rotation now . . .
but plan in flexibility
Harvest time also gives us an opportunity to consider the
past season and start making plans for next year. Planning
crop rotations is something that organic farmers must take
seriously. Within 24 hours after our kidney beans and soybeans
are harvested, the fields are disked lightly and planted to
a small grain, usually spelt, wheat, triticale or winter barley.
These fields will be frost-seeded with medium red clover in
February or March. Small grains are useful in a field crop
rotation to break weed and pest cycles, to loosen the ground,
to add significant amounts of organic matter, especially if
the straw isn’t harvested, to provide soil cover over
the winter, and to allow the establishment of a high-biomass-producing
cover crop, like the clover. The clover is our primary source
of nitrogen for the rest of the 3-4 year rotation. Unfortunately,
this year our soybeans have been slow drying down and it is
getting pretty late to be planting small grains on the last
few fields we are just now harvesting. We don’t like
leaving fields bare over the winter, but we may have to on
some fields, and plant them to spring barley or oats next
In the recent past, some certifiers have been very specific
about what they consider an appropriate organic crop rotation,
but National Organic Program is actually rather vague on this.
NOP Section 205.205 states that a producer must use appropriate
crop rotations to (1) maintain or improve soil organic matter
content, (2) provide for pest management in annual and perennial
crops, (3) manage deficient or excess plant nutrients, and
(4) provide erosion control. While certainly organic farmers
should be doing all of that, we expect that certifiers and
inspectors are struggling to develop consistent criteria that
fairly judge whether all their diverse farmers have adequately
met these rather vague requirements in 2002.
Organic farmers need to consider what their own goals for
crop rotation are, both agronomic and economic, and then plan
a whole farm, multi-year rotation that will meet these goals.
We also need to be flexible, because even the best made plans
can go awry. The rain just wouldn’t quit this spring
until late June, too late to plant spring small grains, corn
and even soybeans on many fields where we had intended to.
As we scrambled to first find shorter season corn, then return
those bags and find more soybean seed, and then scrap that
plan, it became harder and harder to keep to our intended
crop rotation plans. Unfortunately this wasn’t the first
time in recent years that we’ve had to do this. Sometimes
it seems like we’ll never have a ‘normal’
year again, and that makes planning crop rotations much more
difficult. However, we need to understand the goals we are
trying the achieve with crop rotation, and then try to choose
crops that best fit those goals and match the weather.