Unconventional Klaas

Words and photos by Matt Kelly

Klaas Martens is doing something unconventional as a "big farm" American farmer: he’s growing food.

In the United States, corn is our big crop: 94 million acres farmed in 2012. It’s followed by soybeans (76 million acres) and wheat (49 million acres). There’s also the 55 million acres used to grow hay for livestock. And keep in mind that the majority of this corn is being used to feed animals; the remainder is used to manufacture starch, sweeteners, corn oil, beverage and industrial alcohols, and ethanol.

We export up to 20 percent of the corn we produce. The soybeans we use for animal feed, to make hydrogenated vegetable oil or export up to 40 percent. We use wheat for flour, but the amount we grow in this country has decreased 30 percent since 1981 because of the financial incentives for farmers to grow corn; we also export up to 50 percent of the wheat still produced.

Contrast this with the four million acres used for vegetables and five million acres covered with orchards. And the tiny 572,000 acres used to grow sweet corn: the kind of corn you can actually eat. The kind of corn actually grown to be real food for people.

Farmland here in New York State looks similar, dominated by corn at 1.2 million acres and soybeans at 310,000 acres. But vegetable production sits in the number three spot with 136,000 acres of farmland; the western side of our state is one of the few vegetable hotspots contributing to the national total. Sweet corn, sadly, has only 28,000 acres to call its own in New York State.

What it really takes to feed the world

“I really take issue with the line that so many American farmers regularly repeat about feeding the world,” says Marten, a third generation farmer working huge swathes of land near Penn Yan. “I always want to ask Corn Belt farmers whether they, or anybody they know, have ever eaten anything that they grow on their farm.  The answer is almost invariably no.”

Yet this is the story we’re told by Big Agriculture – it’s the story we want to believe as consumers – about the farms in this country: they are the source of bountiful wagon loads of food that feed the world, and farmers are using the latest and greatest technology to make this happen.

But, in the end, that’s just a story. It’s a series of happy caricatures we put on posters to encourage ourselves to stay calm and carry on. It’s anything but the truth.

Klaas, quite unconventionally, is growing food. Along with his wife Mary-Howell, their son Peter and a small team of farmhands, he is growing that food on over 1,400 acres on his farm, Lakeview Organic. In 2014, he grew nearly 2,000 tons of food.

Martens and team also grew smaller amounts of buckwheat, flax, einkorn berries, emmer berries, and freekeh. They grew enough tofu-grade soybeans to make more than 430,000 gallons of soy milk; and enough malting barley to brew more than 240,000 gallons of beer. Most of the dry beans were sold to Chipotle

“We also grew over 1,000 tons of grain corn this past year, most of which went into livestock feed," says Martens. "And, unfortunately, much of the barley and the oats ended up going into feed, too.” There just wasn’t enough demand for the food grade grains this past summer. Martens has grown a fair amount of sweet corn in the past but doesn’t currently have a market for it, either. “Markets and infrastructure still dictate some decisions.”

All of the crops – food and grain corn – they grew organically.

This, once again, is how Klaas and his farming ways bump up against the story that "Big Agriculture" likes to tell: the only way we can produce enough food to feed the world is with artificial genetic tinkering and copious amounts of chemical inputs. And, clearly, many people believe this.

Pesticidal facts and myths

In 2015, almost 90 percent of the corn planted, grown and harvested in the United States was manipulated with in-seed trait technologies – a.k.a genetic engineering – to survive the application of non-selective herbicides made with glyphosate. Which, as a matter of storytelling, might seem pretty cool: kill the weeds so the crops don’t need to compete with them for nutrients, water and sunlight. The genetics of the corn are tinkered with so the crop doesn’t die like every other plant around it.

Monsanto – the originator of glyphosate – has a happy little video you can watch. It explains how glyphosate works by entering through the leaves of a plant and killing the roots, then breaks down in the soil. It tells you that regulatory agencies in more than 160 countries – including the United States – have approved glyphosate-based products. It tells you that glyphosate is precise, effective and proven. 

But the video never answers its own question: Is it harmful?

Monsanto will tell you that there are over 800 studies demonstrating the safety of the chemical. What Big Ag doesn’t talk about is the competing body of evidence demonstrating that glyphosate may be linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, could reduce the activity and reproduction rates in earthworms, might disrupt the population of microbes in the soil, throws the nutrient content of soil out of whack, and is causing weeds to evolve and become resistant to glyphosate. Not to mention that the World Health Organization just declared glyphosate a “probable carcinogenic” based on comprehensive scientific research, and that numerous countries and cities around the world are banning the sale and/or use of glyphosate products. All of these things never make it into that happy little video.

“We’ve been conditioned to think that disease and pests and weeds are random events. That we can only react to them,” says Martens. “You find a pesticide, you find some method of getting rid of the problem.”

Klaas used to grow monolithic fields of corn. He used to spray. For 20 years, he applied all the “right” chemicals. He put them on properly. He carefully recorded the results. Then, in 2000, he and Mary-Howell decided to stop. They decided to go completely organic all at once.

Becoming unconventional

“We weren’t making a good living on our farm,” says Martens. “Sad to say, but quite often my profit was entirely in subsidy money that I was getting. I would plan a crop of corn knowing that it was not likely to be profitable, but we were going to get enough subsidy to make up the difference.”

Klaas and Mary-Howell had been toying with organic practices on a few test acres for a few years, intending to gradually convert a little more land each year. Then one day they saw an ad in the newspaper offering $6 a bushel for organic wheat (twice the conventional rate). And when they started thinking more seriously about going organic, they discovered something interesting. 

“We found that we had markets for almost anything we wanted to grow,” says Martens. So they talked with the local ag experts about the feasibility of farming organic on hundreds of acres. “They assured me that it was something that was probably appropriate for a small backyard plot or a market gardener, but was totally impractical and undoable on the scale that we were talking about.”

The conventional wisdom was solidly against Klaas and Mary-Howell. “I guess that was all the encouragement I needed to at least try it,” says Martens.

But Martens did have another reason: he’d been poisoned by the “right” chemicals. Chemicals that had been approved for use by a regulatory agency. He walked into the house one day, still in the protective suit he always wore and completely unable to use his right arm. Then he started having muscle spasms all across the right side of his body. The chemical was 2,4-D.

Martens eventually recovered the use of his arm and body, but unconventional farming started to make a lot of sense. “Going organic was the only decision we could morally make,” he says. “It was quite risky and scary at the time. But it just would have been wrong to hire others to do work that I couldn't do because it made me sick.”

There was a lot to learn. In the process, Klaas came across a quote by a German agricultural researcher that completely stumped him but completely changed his way of thinking:

Cultural practices form the basis of all weed control. Various other means should be regarded as auxiliary only.
— Bernard Rademacher

Martens was used to asking the conventional question: 'how do I control this?' “Well, this quote turned that thinking around," he says. "It asked, 'What caused this problem? Why is this weed here?' And once you start thinking like this, you can derive a holistic plan for what you’re going to do about it.”

The answer was not to fight against the weeds, but to understand them — completely and fully, within the context of everything else around them.

“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," he says. "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.”

Nature doesn’t have to spray to get rid of weeds.

“Everything that grows in soil changes the soil,” says Klaas. “It makes the soil the best environment for something else.”

And this is why Klaas now maintains such a high level of diversity on his farm, this is why he grows food along with grain corn: Crop rotation. Not the rote grow-the-same-three-things-in-sequence year after year type of rotation. Rather, a thoughtful sequence of crops based on constant observation and evidence.

“The weed that bothered us the most was velvet leaf. It seemed unstoppable. But within six years of changing our farm, changing our rotations (and) changing our inputs, velvet leaf started getting smaller and smaller every year. And we started seeing a disease on it." Martens realized the velvet leaf was being attacked by fungus and virus and insect. “And yet the crop wasn’t being affected,” he adds.

Experts from Cornell came to look at what was happening and they found it all incredibly odd. These diseases and insects were not affecting velvet leaf on any of the neighbors’ farms; those weeds remained the same seemingly-unstoppable problem.

“What was happening is we were changing the environment,” says Martens. “And because the environment was no longer favorable to that species of weed, it started succumbing to problems.”

Martens, Mary-Howell, Peter and the rest of the team are constantly working the land to make sure the crops they’re growing will be the species that has the greatest advantage in the soil at any given moment in the cycle of farming.

A 10,000-year-old problem

It's important not to be too pie-in-the sky about what Martens is doing. His unconventional farming ways are not some mystic alchemy that will magically solve the 10,000-year-old problem of agriculture. Martens and team does spray some Bt products on their cabbage, for instance, to help control worms. (Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, are bacteria naturally found in the soil.)

“And as long as our farm grows food that leaves the premises, we will always have a net loss of minerals from the soil,” says Martens. They will have to plant legumes to replenish the nitrogen. They will have to add poultry manure to replace minerals that are exported with the grains they sell. They will have to buy sulphur, boron, potassium and other minor trace elements to make the soil most favorable to the crops they grow.

“We still have a lot to learn and there is always plenty of room for improvement. We're only getting started as an organic farm," says Martens. "With the right science and technology, we’ll figure out the exact right rotation of crops.”

This is the 10,000-year old problem of agriculture that every farmer simultaneously contributes to and contends with: farming changes the environment. It changes the soil. Period. As long as we’re committed to domesticating and growing the food we eat, we’re also committed to altering the very earth that provides it.

And this is why we need to be extremely thoughtful about how we feed ourselves. Because the question we automatically ask is, how do we reduce human impact on the earth? But when it comes to farming, the better question might be, how do we produce the most constructive and sustainable human impact possible?

Martens and his team are on the way to finding a most unconventional answer. 

Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens were named the 2015 NOFA-NY Farmers of the Year and regularly speak about their farming efforts. Their story was featured in Dan Barber's James Beard award-winning book, The Third Plate, which resulted in coverage from The New York Times, The Atlantic and more.