celebration: Members of New York Certified Organic
enjoy their first winter meeting of the year. NYCO members
have been supporting each other for 10 years now. The Rodale
Institute's Bill Leibhardt, mentioned in the story, is at
the far left.
If you have any questions for the Martens, or
any reflections on the role of community in your
own farm life, please
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.
Gee, it was great to see
everyone again! We held our first New York Certified Organic
(NYCO) meeting of winter at the end of November, and the sense
of joy of being back together was tangible.
Six organic grain growers formed this group about 10 years
ago as an organic certification chapter. They could have been
protective of their market advantage, refusing to teach others
how to farm organically, but instead they shared their experiences
freely with all who came to the meetings. Since then, NYCO
has grown, become more inclusive and separated itself from
a connection to any one certifier.
Over the years, NYCO has developed into a strong, effective
means to promote community, cooperation and friendship between
New York organic farmers and to learn from each other and
from other experts on various pertinent topics. We hold monthly
meetings during the winter and naturally, we all bring lots
of food to share, for there’s nothing better than good
food to foster community! Our monthly newsletter, Tails and
Tassels, is essentially a primer on organic farming, with
far-ranging articles on practical agronomics, markets, organic
livestock issues, changes in organic certification as we come
into the Brave New NOP World, scientific studies, upcoming
events, and news of our members.
The past 50 years have not been kind to a sense of community
and cooperation among farmers. Our extension /university staff,
agribusiness salespeople, farm magazines and the USDA have
aggressively promoted the mantra to ‘get bigger or get
out’. But you know, they aren’t making more farmland
these days! The only way to get bigger is to take over your
neighbor’s farm . . . and how can you truly cooperate
and care about each other’s success if you see him as
a takeover candidate and he sees you as one too?
Increasingly, bitter competition and isolation have become
the way of life for many American farmers. This system assumes
a world of scarcity where there is not enough to go around
and where we must take some of our neighbor’s share
if we are to fill our own demands. In NYCO, we try to counter
this with our message of abundance. There is plenty for all
of us when we work together. We want our neighbors to thrive
and prosper. NYCO has sought to promote the view that indeed,
we all do better when we all do better.
The 3 pillars of
sustainable farm communities
In our experience, if farmers are going
to be convinced to switch and stay with organics, there should
be a dynamic synergism between three crucial things:
- AGRONOMICS - seeing that they can produce equally high
quality crops and animals under organic management
- MARKETING - being able to find good reliable markets for
all their crops, and
- COMMUNITY - knowing other organic farmers who are supportive,
encouraging and successful.
At NYCO meetings, agronomics and marketing take equal share
of attention. Most farmers really want to have clean, high
yielding, good looking fields and healthy, good looking animals.
We’re funny like that! We care deeply about the quality
of our farms, our animals and our crops - and about how other
farmers view us. Many lifelong farmers 'define' themselves
by how well their crops yield, how nice their fields look,
how much milk their cows produce. This is at the core of their
self-image. And they evaluate other farmers by the same criteria.
If they can see that organic farmers in their area are producing
fields that are of acceptable quality, then they are much
more likely to consider it for themselves. But if they see
weedy fields, weak crops, sloppy management, unhealthy animals,
broken equipment, a messy farmyard, then they will probably
want nothing to do with organics.
Having neighbors who are willing to teach, help, encourage
and show that organic farming works is important. Doing it
alone is tough. A farmer is much more likely to choose organics
and stick with it if they feel the support and friendship
from others who live close by, ESPECIALLY if that support
includes helping them find markets for their crops, particularly
in the first years.
more information that is shared without 'protecting
proprietary advantage' and without unfriendly competition
for markets, the stronger the group will be, but
the tone has to be set by the leaders, for this
approach is contrary to the default setting for
today’s American farmer."
NYCO members are very open with each other about our markets.
We freely discuss different buyers, what current prices are,
which buyers are reliable, and what products the buyers are
looking for. We support each other in finding or creating
the right infrastructure nearby to clean, process, store and
handle the product.
The more information that is shared without 'protecting proprietary
advantage' and without unfriendly competition for markets,
the stronger the group will be, but the tone has to be set
by the leaders, for this approach is contrary to the default
setting for today’s American farmer. If a farmer finds
that there is a good reliable market for a particular product,
they will generally figure out how to produce it.
The combination of marketing and local support seems to work
best for organic grain and dairy farms, where proximity to
other similar organic farms actually helps with marketing
crops. A milk company is more interested in sending out a
truck to several dairy farms in the area, a grain buyer is
more likely to 'develop' a region when there are a number
of farms and sizable acreage for successive years of similar
size supply. Grain and milk travels in large trucks. To a
point, more is better.