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
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 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.
Organic cabbage harvest, October 2002:
The Martens' cabbage is made into sauerkraut and packed under the
Cascadian Farms label.
"Sometimes it seems that the current popular
infatuation with no-till often amounts to little
more than an institutionalized support of increased Roundup sales."
"As harvest finishes, many of us are facing
grain bins and checkbooks that are not as full as we had anticipated
when we planted those seeds
so hopefully last spring. It has been
yet another tough
year for farmers. Yet despite that, it is still
a privilege, shared by an increasingly
smaller number, to harvest our own
crops and to see and touch the tangible completion of the
November 4, 2002, Penn Yan, NY: The 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 abundance.
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 quality products.
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 planning
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."
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 year.
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.
To till or not to till . . .
‘No till’ seems to be the ‘golden boy’
of American agriculture these days. Excessive tillage certainly
can result in soil erosion, breakdown of soil structure, a shift
in microbial activity, loss of organic matter, and it uses considerable
amounts of fuel and tractor time. However, this does not mean we
must go out and invest in massive quantities of Roundup! Sometimes
it seems that the current popular infatuation with no-till often
amounts to little more than an institutionalized support of increased
Roundup sales. Not all soils, not all crops, and not all farms are
well suited to no-till.
Organic farmers should incorporate reduced tillage practices into
their techniques, but we prefer to use techniques that use a ‘bio-till’
rather than a ‘no till’ approach, letting an established
live crop prepare the soil for planting the following crop. We had
success broadcasting spelt into soybeans in September, just as the
soybean leaves are turning yellow and starting to fall. The fallen
leaves provide protection for the germinating spelt seedlings. One
other technique we plan to try is used by farmers in the Red River
Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota. They are planting rye as a
cover crop in the fall. When the rye is almost heading in the spring,
they mow it close to the ground and then no-till soybeans into the
stubble. The decomposing rye straw provides weed suppression, nutrients,
organic matter and erosion control for the new crop.
There are many creative ways that organic farmers can incorporate
reduced tillage into their operations but we should not feel guilty
about occasional plowing. Mixing the soil will redistribute nutrients
and make them available to crop plants. The introduction of air
into the soil is also important, especially in an organic system
that relies on microbial activity to provide soil fertility. With
the introduction of new oxygen, the soil microbes are able to digest
soil organic matter, to convert it into stable humus, and to reproduce,
releasing readily plant-available nutrients into the soil solution
which our crops will use. While some soil organisms may be harmed
by the physical action of plowing, for many species and for plant
roots, this breath of fresh air is just what they’ve been
To organic farmers, the most important value of soil organic matter
is in the using of it as a source of fertility, and our friends,
the microbes and worms, need oxygen to do that. We took the children
on a ‘Sunday afternoon adventure’ one warm day last
spring to recently plowed field and spent over an hour breaking
open lumps and looking at earthworms of all sizes, their tunnels
and their eggs. The plowing didn’t seem to have damaged that
earthworm population. The ground was perforated with fresh earthworm
holes which so needed for good water infiltration and root penetration.
Something we’re doing was working well!
Giving thanks for the privelege of hard work
Tonight, I went out to feed the sheep after dark. Inevitably, the
sheep are taking lower priority these days now that the other animals
we raised during the summer, the pigs and chickens, are safely tucked
away into the basement freezer. The wind was sharp and the water
made my hands ache and sting. As I stood there waiting for the water
tank to fill and watching the sheep, I was reminded of an article,
printed several years ago in the Mennonite magazine, Family Life,
in which a young mother considered the privilege of having her hands
in warm, soapy dishwater while watching the snow and bitter wind
whip past her kitchen window. She did not dwell on the piles of
dirty dishes, the other chores left undone, or the demanding children
at her feet. Instead, she appreciated the simple pleasure of warm
hands and a warm home.
The windows in the house glowed through the night as I walked back
from the barn. Just waiting inside was warmth and light, the smell
of good homegrown food cooking in the oven, the relentless ‘Mom-ing’
which would resume as soon as I opened the door. It was a privilege
to be out in the cold silent winter night alone, and it was a privilege
to come inside.
As harvest finishes, many of us are facing grain bins and checkbooks
that are not as full as we had anticipated when we planted those
seeds so hopefully last spring. It has been yet another tough year
for farmers. Yet despite that, it is still a privilege, shared by
an increasingly smaller number, to harvest our own crops and to
see and touch the tangible completion of the year, of our hard work
and our skill. As Thanksgiving comes, it is a privilege to understand
the deep urgency and relief expressed in the hymn, “all is
safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.’ It is a
privilege to know that, God willing, we will be back in our fields
next spring, planting our seeds and again firmly believing in the
abundance of the harvest to come.
Happy Thanksgiving! We wish you a rich and abundant harvest of
family, friends, and love.