Letter from NY: The gift of community

2nd monthly column:
The Martens, who farm over 1300 acres organically in upstate New York, reflect on the critical importance to organic farmers of a supportive community that counteracts the trend in rural America toward bitter competition and isolation. AND THERE'S MORE! 6 keys to successful weed management.

By Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens
December 2, 2002, Penn Yan, NY

Community 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.



Editor's NOTE

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 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.



For the story of the Martens' transition to organic, check out How Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens made the transition to organic.





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:

  1. AGRONOMICS - seeing that they can produce equally high quality crops and animals under organic management
  2. MARKETING - being able to find good reliable markets for all their crops, and
  3. 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.

"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."

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.

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