Martens changing ag's big picture with little picture steps

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens challenged those attending the Iowa Organic Conference to think about how they can change agricultural systems on both the little and big picture level.

Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens talked about their New York organic farm and organic feed business, Lakeview Organic Grain, at the most recent Iowa Organic Conference at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens challenged participants in the Iowa Organic Conference to think about how they can change agricultural systems in little- and big-picture ways.

The conference was held at the University of Iowa as a joint effort between Iowa State University Extension and the UI Office of Sustainability.

"While we may not be able to change the big picture, we can change the little picture around us, the soil, the people, the employees," Mary-Howell Martens said. "As we look at big-picture topics, think about how we can bring them home, apply them and change our own world."

The Martens said their Penn Yan, N.Y., operation isn't perfect, and they always are learning new things, but what they have achieved can provide lessons.

The couple started farming organically in 1992.


"Everyone in Penn Yan was planning our auction, but today, the 16 farms that adjoin our farm are organic, and a good portion of our county has gone organic" Mary-Howell said. "One stone thrown into the small pond of Yates County, N.Y., in 1992 has changed the world. There is a lot more to do, but we (organic farmers) have changed the world already."

The Martens and oldest son Peter farm 1,600 acres organically in the Finger Lakes region.

Their farm doesn't look much different than another other farm, Mary Howell said.

What is different is the number of crops, Klaas Martens said. While their conventional neighbors have reduced the number of crops grown, the Martens and other organic growers are increasing diversity.

They grow corn, soybeans and wheat for feed, food and seed; spelt; barley for malting, food and feed; triticale; oats for seed and food; rye for malting, distilling and seed; pinto, black and kidney beans; several varieties of emmer; cabbage; butternut squash and sweet corn.

"This is not by accident and not because we want to drive ourselves crazy with so many different crops," Klaas said. "All these species are needed to create a healthy system."

They started by growing organic soybeans and fighting with their certifier because they wanted to grow soybeans after soybeans because it was profitable.

It's not the old days


They use cutting edge technology.

"People still say organic farming is going back to the old days," Mary-Howell said. "No, it isn't."

Their tractors are GPS-equipped and guided. Their buildings have solar panels to provide their electrical needs.

"It's important for us to show the world that organic farming is not going back to the old days," Mary-Howell said. "It is a better way to farm. It is a more technologically advanced way to farm. It takes more of us. We substitute our own observation, our own skill, our own ability to make decisions rather than relying on chemical to do it for us."

They learned they can't just think about crop rotations. Weed and pathogen rotations must be considered. Cropping systems have to include a diversity of grasses, legumes, forbs and brassicas.

Working with a Cornell soil scientist, for example, they discovered yellow mustard and buckwheat ahead of edible dry beans eliminates root rot problems.

"We have found that there is not a single agronomic problem we've run into that cannot be eliminated or reduced by introducing the right kind of diversity in the right way at the right time," Klaas said.

Partnering with beginning dairy farms


The Martens work with three young neighboring dairy farmers. Their cover crops are harvested as forage for the dairies, and the dairies give the Martens their manure.

"We supply the feed to make the milk and charge them by the hundredweight of milk they produce," Klaas said.

Lakeview Organic Grains

About 15 years ago, several New York organic dairy farmers approached the Martens about buying organic feed. That soon grew to 100 customers, which was exceeding the capacity of what they could do on their farm. They bought the local feed mill that was going out of business and Lakeview Organic Grains was born.

Today, they have 12 employees and two trucks on the road every day. They supply a good portion of the feed for New York organic dairy farms and backyard and large-scale chicken farmers and sell organic seed to farmers in the Northeast.

"Without the infrastructure, none of this would happen," Klaas said. "We need communities that don't just have the farmers but also have the services those farmers need, and there has to be a way to market all those diverse crops. That is key."

People must ask what kind of an agriculture they want and develop a lens for success, Mary-Howell said.

"We know the end of the rainbow is right there on our farms," she said.


To learn more about the Martens' farm and feed business, visit

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