LITITZ, Pa. — In the United States, rye is an afterthought compared to King Corn and the mighty soybean.
But in Europe, rye is something of a star.
“In England they’re fattening hogs on rye,” said Klaas Martens, who farms 1,400 acres of organic crops in Penn Yan, New York.
Martens spoke at an organic farming event on Dec. 12 at the Lititz location of the Binkley & Hurst equipment dealership.
Part of the problem for American rye is the low yields. Plant breeders have invested in other crops.
“Europeans have developed hybrid varieties that can compete with corn, as much as 200 bushels to the acre,” Martens said.
Europe’s rye hybrids have larger kernels than the crops grown in the U.S. There’s more starch, which means more food to the acre for human consumption, and more feed when the crop goes livestock feed.
U.S. farmers can’t fatten hogs on rye like the English because the small-seeded, stateside rye is too bitter for hogs.
“They don’t do well on it,” Martens said.
European and American farmers also think about rye in dramatically different ways.
“They’re as fussy about rye as we are about corn,” Martens said. “They know exactly at what depth they want to plant, what seed spacing they want and a whole bunch of cultural practices they pay attention to. In this country, we’re just throwing rye seed on the ground.”
Rye is one of a dozen or so major crops Martens and his crew grow on their 1,400 acres.
These include organic grains, including corn, for animal and human consumption.
They grow soybeans for both feed and food, and they produce hundreds of acres of dry beans — like pinto and black beans — for the organic food market.
They also plant another eight minor crops, like yellow mustard, which, when it’s incorporated into the soil, acts as a fumigant to control root rot and other crop pests.
Most of the land is double-cropped, and almost all of it is covered by something green 12 months of the year.
Martens and his wife, Mary-Howell, run Lakeview Organic Grain Co., which sells organic feeds and seeds.
In the past 20 years, organic food has grown from a $3 billion upstart to a $45 billion market, according to the Organic Trade Association.
That’s still small compared to the $820 billion in total grocery sales, but the organic sector grew 6 percent last year, outpacing the 1 percent growth in the overall food market.
“Organic products have shifted from being a lifestyle choice for a small share of consumers to being consumed at least occasionally by a majority of Americans,” the USDA’s Economic Research Service said in a report last year.
Scott Sechler, head of Fredericksburg chicken company Bell & Evans, is preparing to market 3.6 million organic chickens a year by 2020, a leap from the 1 million birds a year the company currently sells.
Sechler said he needs farmers to grow the chickens and he needs a steady supply of organic grain to feed them.
Martens might have some suggestions for doing that.