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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Farm Makes Leap from Conventional to Organic Farming for Health and Profit, Proves Naysayers Wrong

April 23, 2012 |

The world of organics is a battle for minds in which perceived small picture profits are pit against big picture responsibility, says Klaas Martens, co-owner along with his wife Mary-Howell, of The Martens’ Farms, a large-scale organic legume and grain farm in upstate New York.

Before it was an organic farm, The Martens’ Farm was a conventional legume and grain farm that relied on synthetic pesticides and herbicides. It was in the late 1980’s that the Martens’ began to consider a transition away from conventional agriculture practices and inputs. Martens said that at the time, farmers and their families would often feel unwell late in spring due to continuous exposure to synthetic pesticides and other farming chemicals used during the growing season. Martens also felt unwell after spraying synthetic pesticides and attributed a temporary paralysis of his left arm to repeated exposure to 2,4-D (one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world). With two young children and a third on the way, the Martens decided to begin the conversion to organic to protect the health of their family, and to cater to the expanding market for organic soy.

At the time, the cultural climate surrounding organic farming was rife with skepticism and disapproval. Many of the Martens’ colleagues speculated openly about when their farm would go under.

“There is somewhat of a herd mentality in agriculture,” notes Martens, “Anyone who does anything differently is looked at askance. Initially, our decision to go organic was not well supported.”

Doubters also unequivocally pointed out to the Martens’ that they would experience contracted outputs post-organic conversion. The Martens’, on the other hand, perceived an opportunity in the market to take advantage of the higher price of organic soybeans and wheat to close the gap in their earnings that might result from lower yields.

At the time of their conversion, the organic soybean industry in New York was burgeoning, benefiting heavily from demand in Japan.

“Japan has a soybean culture reminiscent to wine culture in America,” says Martens, “Many Japanese buyers can identify what region beans are from, and New York soybeans are considered very high-quality to the Japanese palate. New York’s soil is very well suited to growing soy beans and the demand in Asia for organic soy propelled the organic movement in this area.”

Surprisingly, thanks in part to the entrenched knowledge-base of  a handful of New York soybean farmers who had converted to organic practices before the Martens’, the couple did not experience a decrease in yields as a result of the conversion.

Today, the Martens’ farm over 1300-acres of organic farmland on which they grow soy, corn, spelt, barley, triticale, rye, oats, cabbage and more.

Martens believes that many of the ingrained beliefs regarding the relative profitability of conventional and organic farming stem from long-standing funding schema in agricultural education. “Researchers who publish negative findings about a company’s products realize that they are not as likely to get funded by that company in the future,” Martens points out. Martens says that although research in organics is expanding, to this day there are substantial economic forces vested in maintaining the status quo.

Making the Conversion to Organic

The first few years of conversion require farmers to counteract the history of the soil and identify non-chemical solutions to other agronomic problems. For the Martens’, this meant refocusing on biodiversity, crop rotation, soil health, and environmental understanding. Martens describes an agricultural system based on intimate knowledge of the land’s pre-existing proclivities, of planting a rotation of crops that makes use of the natural cycles of a given biome to ensure that farmers are growing the ideal crop at the ideal time. He explains that amplifying the native characteristics of the land, organic farmers can maximize their yields and their profits, while refocusing their farming practices on long-term responsibility.

According to Martens, as a result of increased research surrounding organic farming, the road for farmers considering conversion today is considerably less bumpy. “A farmer considering conversion to organic today can find good solid research based information to help make their transition successful. We have made a lot of progress. Transition to organic is safer and easier today than it once was,” he says. “Because of organizations like Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), who work hard to promote funding for organic research at universities, tremendous progress has been made in the past 20 years toward understanding the science behind organic farming. Scientists who do organic research still need more public funding to continue their work.”

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