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,
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.
Winter view on the Martens' farm:
The weather outside is frightful, but inside the community is warm
and delightful ... so to speak.
"We farm organically for many reasons --
greater economic security, the health
of our families and ourselves, the
rewards of community and cooperation, environmental concerns, and
because this system works well for us.
But we also have another role to play. This world can not survive
continued assault with dangerous chemicals and poor agricultural
practices much longer. "
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
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
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
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.
|"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.
Weed control: The Achilles Heel
of organic farming
At our meeting in November, Dr. Bill Liebhardt from the Rodale
Institute was kind enough to come speak to us. Bill is the retired
chair of the Sustainable Agriculture program at the University of
California at Davis, and is currently on a one year assignment at
Rodale, reinvigorating their research program. The NYCO farmers
were captivated by the highly pertinent research that Rodale has
done over the past 20 years. The long-term systems comparison trial
between legume-based organic, manure-based organic and conventional
grain farming systems showed many worthwhile things, particularly
that the yields varied little and in dry years, the organic system
shone. The organic soils were higher in organic matter, had greater
water infiltration and water holding capacity, and were more microbially
active. For those of us firm believers in the organic system, this
was music to our ears!
Then Bill turned the mirror on us with straight talk about the
Achilles Heel of organics -- weed control. There is plenty of evidence
that organic farming improves the soil and is better for the environment,
but unfortunately weed control on many organic farms is inconsistent.
It can be very good, sometimes better than what can be obtained
with a complex herbicide cocktail, or it can fail, and often the
farmer does not really know what caused the difference. We don’t
like to hear this, but it is undeniably true. So, in response to
Bill’s observation, here are some thoughts about what we,
as organic farmers, can do to make organic weed control more consistent.
1. Input substitution
does not work
-- there are no silver bullets!
For those who switch to organics, thinking that all they have to
do is eliminate chemicals and buy a cultivator, weed control is
almost certain to fail. Organic farming is a totally different system
of thinking and planning. Crop rotations, or lack thereof, that
‘work’ under heavy pesticides and synthetic fertilizers
are often totally inappropriate under organic conditions. Conventional
agriculture’s inattention to soil health spells disaster in
an organic system. If we don’t change our way of thinking
and planning, it is hardly a surprise that an organic farmer might
have weed control success one year and failure the next, and have
no idea why. Organic agriculture is a system where all parts are
interrelated. Weed control is integrally linked to soil fertility
and condition, which is integrally linked to crop rotation. We,
and the scientists now studying organics, should not consider any
one factor in isolation, or fail to take into account that whatever
we do to one part of the system affects everything else.
2. The heart of
organic weed control success
is cultural, not mechanical.
A good cultivator may be needed to clean up residual weed problems,
but it should be seen as only the last line of defense. Far more
important are various cultural practices that limit the size and
type of the weed population from the very start. The main point
in cultural practices is to create as large a differential as possible
between the size and vigor of the crop and the size and vigor of
the weeds. A well-planned, diverse, crop rotation, active soil fertility
management, attention to sanitation, using high quality seed of
well adapted varieties, and well adjusted and appropriate equipment
will go far in creating this differential. Wise use of allelopathic
and deep shading crops can put existing weed problems at a disadvantage.
Cultural weed control is a system of thinking and of planning approaches
that use many interrelated factors to your advantage.
3. Define your reasonable
weed control expectations.
Perfect scorched earth between the rows might not be necessary
or even desirable. Indeed, don’t forget that this isn’t
always the norm with chemical weed control either! We believe that
rating weed control with a simple one to five scale, only recording
how many weeds are killed, is not adequate to evaluate weed control
holistically. A sound weed control program must meet the following
- no yield loss from weed pressure,
- no quality loss from weed pressure,
- cost effective,
- safe for farmer, the crop, and the environment,
- sustainable over many years.
Each crop and even each field will require different approaches
to meet these goals, but if your overall weed control program meets
these criteria, then don’t second-guess yourself.
When we farmed with chemicals, we found that our weed control program
consistently failed on the last three points -- and all too often,
it failed on all five. Today we are happy to report that our weed
control is meeting all 5 criteria on most of our farm each year
and on all of it in good years. We are still striving to constantly
improve as we learn more about weeds and expect that we will continue
to do so for as long as we farm.
4. Timing is critical.
It doesn’t take much attention to control weeds in Roundup
Ready soybeans, but it is not so simple in organic farming. Mechanical
weed control must begin long before the weeds are visible. If you
can see the weeds from your pickup truck window, there’s a
good chance that you are too late. Timing can be somewhat less precise
if your cultural practices are sound. If you are relying solely
on a cultivator for weed control and then it rains for days just
when you must cultivate, you can have a real disaster. But if the
weed population has already been reasonably controlled by cultural
practices, you will have a little more flexibility with timing.
5. Intelligent observation
What your neighbor is doing might not work as well on your farm.
Your crop and weed histories, soil conditions, weather, and your
farm’s economic needs are undoubtedly different. It is very
useful to learn what works for others, but you and your farm are
unique. You won’t know what works on your farm unless you
are out there, critically observing and learning from what you see.
There are so many opportunities for creativity. The conventional
mindset of doing the same thing every year is a real hindrance to
organic success. One good example of this what Bill Liebhardt called
relay cropping, an approach that may work some years in many places.
He suggested drilling soybeans into a small grain in late spring.
The small grain will be harvested in mid-summer, giving the soybean
plants enough time to grow through the straw and produce a reasonable
yield by October. Two harvests in one year, terrific weed control,
and lots of organic biomass for the soil too! The soybean plants
may not yield well in a dry year, but in ‘normal’ years,
the payoff could be substantial. What a neat idea! It won’t
work for everyone all the time, but its worth a try!
6. Believe in what
you are doing.
We must believe that the organic system will work; we cannot begin
by expecting it to fail. When Bill Liebhardt presented recent scientific
data showing serious environmental and health problems caused by
the pervasive exposure to pesticides, we all sat up a little straighter
and felt a little prouder. We farm organically for many reasons
-- greater farm economic security, the health of our families and
ourselves, the rewards of community and cooperation, environmental
concerns, and because this system works well for us. But we also
have another role to play. This world can not survive continued
assault with dangerous chemicals and poor agricultural practices
much longer. Already we are seeing emasculated frogs, rising cancer
rates, and sharply reduced human sperm counts in rural areas of
Iowa, all linked to pesticide exposure. Antibiotics are losing their
effectiveness because they have been so irresponsibly used as animal
growth promoters. This is another legacy of the past 50 years of
agricultural policy. We must actively show that there is another
way that is productive, economical, environmentally friendly, healthy
. . . and where weeds are consistently well controlled!
Peace on earth begins on
As we approach the holidays, the cards proclaiming ‘Peace
on Earth and Good Will to All’ begin to arrive. For many of
us, our personal philosophy toward peace has been deeply pondered
during the past few months. However, the oft-repeated phrase in
our own house, “World Peace begins with your sister! (or brother)”
is equally relevant to consider. Sometimes it is much harder to
be peaceable with those closest to you. The founders of NYCO could
have protected their markets and refused to share their hard-earned
experience with others, but they did not. Instead, they learned
that the more you give away, the more you have. As our community
grew, so did our market opportunities and our strength as a group.
Cooperation, sharing kindness, and friendship were not just nice,
pleasant but somewhat impractical virtues. They were pragmatic,
profitable, and deeply satisfying.
With the coming of the NOP, we have the opportunity to transcend
regional, commodity and certifier loyalties, and really see ourselves
as part of a larger cohesive, unified, and positive ORGANIC COMMUNITY.
Just as families help and support each other, forgiving others’
quirks and inadequacies and sticking together even when we don’t
agree, we in the organic community need to do this also.
We have a big job to do, and we can not do it alone!
Previous Letters from New
November 4, 2002: Reflections at harvest time, with