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Home  > Conversations from the Field > Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens

Conversations from the Field

ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement

Conversations from the Field Archives

Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.


Organics Can Feed the World—A conversation with leading commercial-scale organic grain growers, Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens

K and M-H Martens, courtesy photo

This month's Conversations from the Field is an excerpt from a March 2008 Acres U.S.A. interview with Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens. Mary-Howell and Klaas are pioneer organic grain farmers in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. They have been farming organically since 1991 and together with their children they manage 1400 acres of organic field and processing-vegetable crops. They also started an organic feed business in 1996 which has expanded to supply more than 300 organic farmers in central New York. They were the 2008 SARE Patrick Madden award winners in the Northeast. This is our third installment in ATTRA's ongoing series featuring SARE's Madden award winners. Every two years, SARE presents the Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture to farmers or farm families who advance sustainable agriculture through innovation, leadership and good stewardship. Winners are selected from each of SARE's four regions: North-Central, Western, Southern, and Northeast.

Reprinted with permission from Acres U.S.A.
P.O. Box 91299
Austin, TX 78709
(512) 892-4400
Subscriptions: $27/year. For a sample copy of Acres U.S.A. call 800-355-5313.

Acres U.S.A.: Can you tell us what the major issues are for the larger, commercial type organic farm today? Many of the people we talk to have been hard-corn chemical farmers, have met an epiphany along the way somewhere, and then made the transition. So why don't we start with the transition, and why more chemical farmers do not get into organic farming?

K. Martens: I would say the biggest barrier is the misconception that it can't be done. Most conventional farmers we talk to really don't believe they can do it. They see that other people can farm organically, but they don't have confidence that they would succeed and up until recently, most of the experts were actively reinforcing this sense.


Acres U.S.A.: When did you come to your decision?

M-H. Martens: It was in the early '90s. There were a number of major changes in our life that converged. We had just split up a farm partnership with Klaas's brothers. They kept the cows, and we went out on our own with 500 acres of corn, soybean, wheat, and hay. We soon realized that at conventional prices, we were not going to be able to support a family on 500 acres with conventional crops. You know, there's something seriously wrong with an agricultural system if 500 acres is not enough land to support a family! So we started looking around for niches and penciled out some pretty wild ideas that just wouldn't cash-flow on paper. Then, one night we were sitting at the kitchen table looking through the local farm newspaper and saw a classified ad in the back that said, "Wanted, Organic Wheat." We looked at each other and said, "Well, of course it can't work, but we'll give it a try." To our surprise, it did work very well. The next year we transitioned more acres. It was something we honestly didn't think would succeed—but fortunately we were wrong.

K. Martens: In the process we discovered several people in the area already farming organically who were willing to share their knowledge with us.


Acres U.S.A.: So they instructed you on what you had to do with the soil to deal with nutrient values and weed pressure and so on?

K. Martens: Yes, these farmers taught us that. They also shared markets, even when the available organic markets weren't big enough for their own grain. Interestingly enough, as more farmers around here transitioned to organic, the area attracted more buyers, more infrastructure, more opportunities for organic grain farmers, and so the market grew with the size of the supply. Through this, we all learned a new economic law—the more you give away, the more you receive.

M-H. Martens: At the same time, we were farming conventionally when one day—in June 1993—Klaas was spraying 2,4-D herbicide and was exposed to the chemical when cleaning a clogged nozzle.

K. Martens: Later that day, my arm suddenly wouldn't move.

M-H. Martens: The whole side of his body became paralyzed. It was really scary because we had one small child at the time and another one on the way, and we didn't know what was wrong with him. For all we knew, it could have been a stroke—we just didn't know. He went to an orthopedic surgeon. There, in the middle of June, a farmer with neuromuscular symptoms walked in the surgeon's door, and never once did this doctor ask what Klaas had been spraying! The doctor gave him muscle relaxers and pain pills and that sort of stuff. Finally Klaas ended up at a chiropractor and gradually recovered the use of his arm. It wasn't until about five years later, when I was rereading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring that I realized what had happened. There was a description of 2,4-D poisoning symptoms, and it sounded like what happened to Klaas.

Lakeview Mill, courtesy NEON project

K. Martens: I recovered fully, but that experience certainly was a wake-up call for us to do something different.


Acres U.S.A.: Do you have plenty of market demand now for your organic grain?

K. Martens: Our biggest problem right now is finding organic grain to satisfy the market!

M-H. Martens: In addition to our transition to organic, one other major change occurred in the mid-1990s. In 1996 the first three organic dairy farmers in New York came to us and said, "You grow organic grain, and we know of another farmer with a blower truck and mixer/ grinder. Could you start making organic feed for us?" We thought that was no big deal. By 2000, though, we had over 150 organic dairy customers, and we needed more storage space and grinding capacity. Agway, the big farmer co-op, was going bankrupt and selling off property, including the old feed mill in town. We bought that thinking we might be able to run it half-time with one person grinding now and then. At Lakeview Organic Grain, we now have seven employees, we're grinding more feed there than Agway ever did, and we're shipping it all over New York and northern Pennsylvania every day. All of the feed we produce is certified organic.


Acres U.S.A.: The people who were already practicing organic agriculture when you started, and interrupted what they were doing to help you out—can you tell us a little bit more about that?

K. Martens: It surprised us. When we were conventional farmers and wanted to learn about a new opportunity, the other farmers usually wouldn't talk or might even give us incorrect information. However, the established organic farmers were willing to help us get started, giving us much encouragement and valuable information.


Acres U.S.A.: Has that attitude of generosity continued to prevail?

K. Martens: In general, at least in New York it has prevailed. But the whole community has gotten much more complicated in the past ten years—there are many more people in it, many more different types of farmers.

M-H. Martens: The rapidly rising price of organic grain presents some serious problems to the core foundation of cooperation and fairness that the organic movement was originally built upon. One of the biggest current challenges to the organic community is the perception that the organic grain farmers are benefiting at the direct expense of organic dairy farmers. As the organic grain price has risen dramatically, the ones most affected are the organic dairy farmers, because their milk price hasn't risen to keep pace with grain. Certainly our cost of production has gone up some, but nowhere near as much as the current grain price would indicate. If this organic market is going to be sustainable, prices must be fair and reasonable for everyone involved, both buyer and seller.

K. Martens: We should say though, that several New York organic grain farmers voluntarily did not go for the highest price they could have gotten last year; they accepted a lower price knowing that New York dairy farmers were buying it. We were impressed that they cared that much about their neighbor.

Acres U.S.A.: How many of the lessons you've developed out there in your community have migrated into the university and the republics of learning?

K. Martens: Quite a few recently. At this time we have probably five or six university projects going on our farm. One of them is with Dr. Chuck Mohler, who is now writing a very extensive book on organic weed control.

M-H. Martens: We try to allow Cornell University faculty to use our farm as a real-life lab so that research can be done on a actual organic farm, not just on a research farm that is sort of organic.

K. Martens: It helps the program work. Much of the organic research at Cornell was actually initiated because of the problem of declining soil health in vegetable production. Researchers are showing that organic farms have far better indicators of soil health, and they're trying to figure out why—which of our agricultural practices make the soil healthier.

M-H. Martens: They're trying to define the parameters that produce a healthy soil, which can then be used as a benchmark for evaluating other soils and determining what to do to bring them up to the level of "healthy."

Acres U.S.A.: ...Let's talk about the bottom line for any farmer—making a profit. Industrial agriculture claims it can increase profits through the use of synthetic chemicals. What about the costs of farming organically?

M-H. Martens: We have tracked our costs very carefully on a computer program ever since the late ‘80s and early '90s, before we were organic farmers, through our transition and now for more than 12 years farming organically. What we found is that our cost of production, our cost per bushel, has actually dropped as compared to what it was when we were farming conventionally. This year, with conventional input costs skyrocketing and the costs of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides going through the roof, organic farming is going to make even more economic sense because, except for petroleum, our input costs haven't changed much while organic grain prices have risen significantly. Even if we weren't getting a premium price for our organic grain, we'd still make more money farming organically.

Klaas Martens with cultivator, courtesy NEON project

K. Martens: I think there's another point we need to make here, and that's how organic farmers are challenged by the statement that organic farming can't feed the world with the population that we have now. I tell them categorically that's a bunch of baloney, with one caveat: organic farming could definitely feed the world, but not on the diet that it has become accustomed to. We can't have half of the Midwest planted to corn, and the other half planted to soybeans, and call that sustainable. But we could feed the world a much better diet with more diversity if we'd bring back the varied groups of crops that were once grown, perhaps also some new crops. We could feed the world with a more diverse crop mix that will also produce a healthy stable soil.

Acres U.S.A.: You know, it's amazing the amount of material that we've compiled over the last 38 years, and some of it [that] was hooted down 30 years ago, now is being accepted. Mary-Howell, do you have any closing thoughts for our readers?

M-H. Martens: Two things. First for agriculture to be successful and satisfying in the long term for those doing it, it must be family friendly. At a time when young people are eagerly leaving their conventional farms, our three children all enjoy being a part of our operation and our oldest son is already firmly a part of the business. We need better ways to encourage young people to enjoy farming. Second, despite the many challenges we've experienced in recent years, it is really important to still be able to view ourselves as an organic community. Too often we view the world as them-against-us, organic vs. conventional, big organic versus small organic, etc. There are some truly major issues coming shortly—economic, agricultural, energy, political—and we need the expertise of many people to develop different perspectives and people to develop different solutions. We can learn a lot from each other, but when we view the world from only a black-and-white perspective, we lose many opportunities to learn and to improve.


Conversations from the Field Archives


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This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014