Growers: Diversity Key to Success on Large Farm

2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

CHESTERTOWN, Md. — Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, owners of Lakeview Organic Grain in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, have learned that crop diversity is key to their operation.

Mary-Howell discussed their success during the day-long conference, “Economic Diversification for Large-Acreage Farms,” held Monday at Washington College in Chestertown. Klaas was unable to attend.

Martens, her husband and three grown children farm 1,400 acres of organic crops, and manage a small livestock operation and a feed mill. All they do grew out of the couple’s desire to find a sustainable way to earn their living from the land before their children were born, she said.

Klaas and his two brothers farmed together before the couple decided to strike out on their own. The farm included livestock as well as grain production, typical in a conventional operation.

Now, the Martenses grow corn, soybeans, spelt, barley, oats, wheat, triticale, red kidney beans and hay, as well as malting barley for a local brewery and two strains of ancient wheat cultivars — emmer and eikhorn. They also plant Austrian winter pea and are constantly experimenting with new crops. The first organic grain crop they produced was wheat in 1993.

Martens shared a favorite quote from architect William McDonough, a leader in planning for sustainability: “Design is the signal of intention. To design systems that are less bad’ is to accept things as they are, and to believe that poorly-designed, less destructive, are the best that humans can do. The ultimate failure of the less bad system’ is a failure of the imagination to grasp an entirely different model.”

“Sustainability is really about treating others the way we want to be treated, including the soil, animals, plants and people,” Martens said. “Rural communities have been under stress for a long time. We all do better when we all do better.”

She went on to outline the four legs of organic farming: crop rotation, soil health management, cultural weed control and wise machinery selection. “The secret of success is NOT what you buy, it’s what you do,” she said.

Crop rotation encompasses a larger variety of choices that must be agronomically well-adapted to soils and climate and have economic viability. Cover crops such as clover and yellow mustard contribute to soil health, she said.

The couple experimented with Austrian winter pea, an overwintering forage pea, which is best when grown with barley to make the harvest more efficient. A major benefit is that it helps to fix nitrogen in the soil, she said.

No-till farming helps to reduce erosion, but it does nothing to contribute to the microbial development in the soil. And microbes are an important component of healthy soil, Martens said.

Some cover crops are routinely plowed under, contributing “green” manure. Plowing under hastens decomposition of the cover crop and helps to correct nutrient deficiencies, she said. Key to improving soil health is to provide appropriate draining, decrease erosion, and create diversion ditches, contour cropping and sod-waterways.

Cultural weed control means creating an environment that favors food crops and disfavors weeds, Martens said. This can be done by making crop selections that adjust soil fertility and physical characteristics in ways that make it inhospitable to hard-to-control weeds.

For example, she said, they have learned that the key to controlling rampant growth of Canada thistle is to mow it just before or just as it begins to bloom.

An example of a wise machinery choice is a blind cultivator, which can be very effective at early-season and mid-season weed control because the tines vibrate and stir up soil in order to dry out young weeds before they can become firmly established.

As she talked about sustainable farming practices, Martens kept returning to three operational practices that she said make sense and increase profits: buying local and selling local; emphasizing prevention rather than treatment, and marketing value-added product from your farm.

Something all farmers have to think about is the proximity of their markets. Transportation costs can soon gobble up profits. The couple’s success with organic grains made it clear that they could improve the product as well as retain a larger share of the profit if they processed the grain into seed or feed for end-users, Martens said.

This mirrors what many successful farm operations do now — market value-added products, such as ice cream if they own a dairy farm. The Martenses were able to buy a mill that was not being used and put it back into production to produce feed for organic dairy farmers in New York and Pennsylvania. They ground their first feed in 2001.

The couple has successfully linked the farming operations to local clients. They discovered that backyard chicken farmers in their own area had created a local market for organic feed. Then they discovered a local brewery that needed something they could produce. Recently, New York state has authorized small-scale distillery operations that will use other grains they grow.

Martens said it is a fallacy to think of organic farming as the “old” way. It is cutting edge, she said. It can incorporate new technology such as GPS just as readily as conventional farming. The couple’s oldest son is integrating new technology into their organic operation to reduce waste and increase profits.

Their daughter is preparing to study veterinary medicine, and their youngest son is interested in culinary uses of organically-grown food.

The Martenses don’t own all the land they farm, only about one-third of their acreage. The rest of the land they farm is rented, often from landowners who live on the land and appreciate an agricultural operation that is literally in their backyards and does not rely on chemicals, she said.

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