Klaas Martens is doing something unconventional for an American farmer: he’s growing food. A third generation farmer, he’s working huge swathes of land near Penn Yan with his wife Mary-Howell, their son Peter, and a small team of farmhands. They are growing a mix of food, grains, and animal feed on over 1,400 acres. And they are doing it organically: no spraying, no chemicals, no GMOs. This makes Klaas a very unconventional big farm farmer.
Klaas used to grow monolithic fields of corn. He used to spray. For twenty years, he applied all the “right” chemicals. Then in 2000 he and Mary-Howell decided to stop and go completely organic. They saw a market demand for real organic food. And Klaas was poisoned by the “right” chemicals he was using.
Klaas is an amazing man to talk with about farming, food, the future… and pretty much anything else. For the launch of Boomtown Table – a new online publication about the life of local food in the Finger Lakes – I wrote a story about how and why Klaas is running a big farm unconventionally. Here are some pieces from the various conversations we’ve had; thoughts and information that didn’t necessarily make it into the story.
How easy was the transition to organic once you decided to make it?
We actually began transitioning to organic in 1993 beginning with just a few acres at first and intending to convert more land each year. My bout with poisoning accelerated that schedule to converting all of the remaining land cold turkey. That was the only decision we could morally make but it was quite risky and scary at the time. It just would have been wrong to hire others to do work that I couldn’t do because it made me sick.
It might seem like a small distinction, but the few years we had to get some experience first made the jump to going all organic possible. Today, with the vast collective experience of organic farmers in the region over the past 30 years plus the advances Cornell University has made in organic farming, converting a farm to organic would be much less difficult or risky than it was 20 years ago. Looking back, our initial practices with only three or four different crops and no idea what to expect seem very naive.
How much food are you actually growing?
These figures are rough but they are pretty close. You’ll get a picture of the diversity of our cropping system and the type of diet that it can support.
Last year we grew over 1,000 tons of cabbage and 120 tons of tofu-grade soybeans. We grew more than 100 tons of edible dry beans, 500 tons of spelt for flour, 11 tons of einkorn berries, 9 tons of emmer berries, 7 tons of freekeh, 5 tons of buckwheat, 3.5 tons of flax, and 30 tons of edamame seed that would yield over 100 tons of fresh edamame. We also grew 100 tons of soybeans for seed that could make more than 175 tons of tempeh.
We grew over 5,000 bushels of malting barley – enough to make more than 240,000 gallons of beer plus a lot of brewers grains for livestock feed – 6,000 bushels of oats, 3,800 bushels of wheat, and 3,000 bushels of rye.
We double cropped much of our land with cover crops that were also harvested. Most of this was harvested for animal feed but some could have been used for human consumption: pea shoots from our winter pea covers, daikon radishes, clover blossoms, field peas, mustard greens, chickweed, mustard seed, milky oats from immature oat heads, etc. There are many tasty ways to eat our cover crops without reducing their benefits to our soil.
Add to all that about 50 hogs fed on screenings, cover crops, and spoiled grains from our mill that we sent to Stone Barns, and over 100 head of milk cows and 100 head of heifers fed largely on cover crops that were harvested as forage without reducing our production of other crops. The dairy cows we feed from our land, produce about 1.5 million pounds of milk per year and the calves plus cull cows add an additional 30 tons of beef per year to the total food we produce.
This year, we added squash and sweet corn to the mix. We also work with a local beekeeper who produces honey from our fields.
Do you grow any grain corn?
Yes, we grew over 1,000 tons of grain corn last year. We have grown a fair amount of sweet corn in the past but don’t currently have a market for it. Unfortunately, most of our grain corn ends up going into livestock. We do plant some food grade OP corn that is used for corn meal, craft distilling, etc., but it is only a small percentage. This is due to lack of markets not for lack of wanting to sell it as food. A couple of distilleries use the hybrid grain corn too but, again, a very low percentage. While our barley was all malting varieties, much of it ended up going into livestock feed because there was not enough demand for the food grade this summer. Likewise with oats. We also grow a lot of grains for seed here; we planted the best variety of malting barley on all of our acres this fall hoping to sell more of it for malting next year. Markets and infrastructure still dictate some decisions.
I’ve had many discussions with Dan Barber about why we can’t sell all of our crops for food purposes. From those discussions came the concept he expands on in The Third Plate of needing to create a balance between peoples’ diets and the agronomic realities involved in managing healthy soils.
Talk a little about the soil.
Each species of crop changes the soil in many ways and makes it better suited to a different successive species. Legumes, including clovers, produce large amounts of nitrogen and build stable aggregates in the soil. Grasses, including annual grain crops, consume large quantities of nitrogen and leave carbon rich residues that further build soil structure, water holding capacity, and organic matter. Brassicas produce gasses when incorporated that destroy pathogenic nematodes and kill fungal pathogens.
I learned some things that made a lot of sense to me when I was out in the field. When you completely abandon a field, take it out of production, the first year you have all these annual type weeds that cover the ground with millions of seeds. But the second year almost none of those same weeds grow; a different group of grasses comes up. And if we waited a third year, we’d see more perennials and goldenrod. And if we waited even a little longer, we’d start seeing brambles and woody plants and the beginnings of trees.
We need to have such a high level of diversity for agronomic reasons. If we didn’t grow such a wide variety of crops on our farm, we would have much more pest pressure and need more off-farm inputs.
Do you spray or provide any sort of additional inputs at all to your fields and crops?
We do use inputs. The details are complex and I want to convey them accurately.
We are not a truly closed system but moving more in that direction as we figure out better ways to close the mineral cycles. As long as our farm sells food that leaves the premises, we will have a net loss of minerals unless we purchase nutrients to replace those we remove.
We can easily generate all of our farm’s nitrogen needs with legumes. We buy poultry manure to replace some of the minerals we export in our grains. We also buy sulphur, boron, potassium, and some minor trace elements based on soil and tissue tests.
We do spray some Bt products on our cabbage to help control worms. But our pest pressure is very low even in crops that are heavily sprayed by other farmers.
We still have a lot to learn and there is always plenty of room for improvement. We have, however, stopped seeing economically significant damage from many of the pest species we once had to deal with and reduced pressure from the ones that are still causing problems. All of the serious pest problems we have had to deal with can be reduced by increasing our biodiversity. The important qualifier is that it must be increased with the right species.
Do you think organic farming can feed the world?
I tell a lot of groups that I speak at that organic farming could easily feed the world today. I say that with one very important caveat: It would not be with a diet based on high fructose corn sweetener and hydrogenated soy oil. It also couldn’t be based on factory farmed animal products. It would however be a far more diverse, interesting, healthy, and delicious diet than most people currently have. It would also build the future productivity of the soil instead of destroying it like many of the world’s farming systems are currently doing.
I really take issue with the line so many American farmers regularly repeat about feeding the world. I always want to ask Cornbelt farmers who say that whether they or anybody they know has ever eaten anything that they grow on their farm. The corn they grow goes into animal feed or into ethanol. The answer is almost invariably NO.