At the heart of the Finger Lakes, and perhaps somewhat protected from the faster outer world by those long lakes, Yates County has come to be a leading area for organic farming in the nation.
Cornell Cooperative Extension Vegetable Specialist Judson Reid says, "Yates County is a leader in organic farming because we are a leader in farming. Our soils, lakes, and positive political climate for agriculture help the county."
Reid also says, "We have some outstanding people in the county that are national leaders in the field." It is impossible to talk about the growth and success of organic farming in Yates County without recognizing Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens as two of those leaders. Their farm and mill, Lakeview Organic Grains, along with their advocacy and support of other farmers, have been the linchpin in the progress for the organic farm industry in Yates, in the Finger Lakes, in New York and beyond. For 20 years, they have raised not only organic crops, but the consciousness of the community to the benefits of organic farming, both for health and for the economy.
According to Reid, "Lakeview Organic Grain is known throughout the Northeast. Their customers come to buy grains, but then take advantage of the other ag businesses in the county, for example irrigation supplies, the produce auction, Birkett Mills, tractor sales and service. Lakeview is often outsiders' introduction to Penn Yan and Yates County."
A Wild Idea
Both Martens are Cornell graduates; Klaas growing up on the dairy and crop farm of his German immigrant parents here in Yates County, while Mary-Howell came to farming from a purely science-based perspective, after working in plant research for Cornell's Geneva Experiment Station. They began when they saw a want ad in "Country Folks" magazine for organic wheat.
According to the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, the term "organic" can be used to label products when farmers and food processors follow the federal regulations comprising the National Organic Program. Organic farming methods emphasize soil health, biological, insect and disease control, and natural fertilizers. The Martens devoted just a few of their 500 acres, normally producing corn, soybeans, and hay, to the wild idea. But it was a wild idea that would add tremendous value to each ton of wheat. That attraction was balanced by the fear of reduced yield. Klaas was told organic farming was not practical on a large scale, and he would lose half his crop.
Those fields went without chemical sprays or fertilizers for 32 months before that first wheat crop could be certified as organic in 1993, and the dire prediction of failure proved false. But Klaas was an expert in spray technology, and continued using chemical technology on his best land. "I was scared to stop," said Martens. That was at least until 1995, when something scared him more. He returned from a day of spraying 24D herbicide only to suddenly find his left arm was paralyzed. According to Klaas, 24D is a neurotoxin otherwise known as Agent Orange. Only by the help of family and neighbors were the Martens able to continue during the months it took him to recover the use of his arm.
Page 2 of 6 - Martens recalled the deaths of farmers in the area from cancer, few of them in his memory ever reaching old age, including his own father. Now with the health of their own three young children to consider, the Martens made the leap of faith and crossed the ideological river to the side of full organic farming. Rather than relying on a short rotation of just a few crops with massive applications of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, the Martens achieve high yields with longer rotations of a greater variety of crops (including special grains never seen before in Yates County), along with the pasturing of animals to graze upon and fertilize the field. The elimination of the chemicals also means the return of the lowly earthworm that Klaas credits for much of the soils' renewed natural vitality.
A recent study from Stanford University claimed that there is no nutritional benefit to paying the added cost for organic foods. Mary-Howell Martens has examined the study in detail, saying it is a meta-study, using results compiled from other studies, and the results were skewed. Klaas Martens stresses the health of the food as a direct result of the health of the soil. "You can smell the earth again in organic fields. Chemically treated soil doesn't smell like anything." Rather than over-applying fertilizer because much of it will be lost to leaching and erosion, Klaas says that the organic nutrients remain in a stable cycle in the soil, released in a timely order.
The Organic Pioneer
The Martens were not the first Yates County farmers to make an organic decision. In the early 1950's, Benton Farmer Jack Lewis and his wife, Carolyn, a registered nurse, came to the same conclusions by their own observations that many studies since have verified. Their daughter, Barbara Burke, recalls her father as an avid outdoorsman who was distressed by the numbers of dead birds he found after each application of pesticide and herbicide in the fields. As a nurse, Carolyn saw the increased number of children with illnesses and behavior problems, and came to believe it was from these same toxic substances.
The Lewises set out to educate not only themselves, but the people around them. They made the acquaintance of Louis Bromfield, renowned author and the "Godfather" of the organic farming movement in America. They visited him at his experimental farm, Malabar, in Ohio, the first large-scale, self-sustaining organic farm in North America. Carolyn was an early advocate of Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, that exposed the lethal dangers to human and animal health posed by the widespread use of DDT. Burke says her parents "organized study groups, spoke at agricultural meetings, and were really evangelists in spreading safe farming practices. Slowly, society began to realize bad chemicals make bad health."
Page 3 of 6 - This realization has now gone from just the farmers who saw and felt the negative impacts first hand. According to the EPA, five billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the U.S.
Now, the public has shown concern as well, and is willing to pay more for the confidence they are not consuming toxic substances with their food. The upscale grocery chain Whole Foods specializes in organic and sustainable produce, and large scale, conventional supermarkets like Wegman's now feature organic sections of produce and other processed foods, much of it coming from Yates County.
But in testimony to growing local awareness, there are four weekly farmers markets and even more farm stands in Yates where many organic products are sold.
Yates has a daily organic market as well, and like many businesses in the county, it is a small, independent, start-up family business devoted to serving the needs of their customers first hand. The Pennsylvania Yankee Mercantile at 7 Main St. Penn Yan was begun by Elizabeth and Daniel Hoover, both of whom grew up farming. These skills would later be useful when Daniel became the mill manager of Lakeview Organic Grain.
Elizabeth says, "At Lakeview, Daniel was constantly confronted with a problem. Farmers had products with nowhere to sell, and customers wanted products with nowhere to buy. We saw our store as the solution. When the general store was the main source of goods in town, products did not come from across the country or another country. They came from the town's backyard. The general store was the source for real food and real products."
The Hoovers support the community by only selling local products, and they support sustainable agriculture by providing a market for all natural and organic products. They set four basic criteria for their merchandise:
- All Natural: Made from 100% whole ingredients. No artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, fillers or derivatives.
- Organically Produced: 95% of ingredients are organically raised, but are not certified as such.
- Certified Organic: 95% of ingredients are certified organic.
- Produced within a 100 mile radius of Penn Yan.
All the products adhere to a strict standard of health, taste and locality, including meats (beef, pork, lamb, chicken turkeys, ducks, geese and emu this spring, all raised on a soy free diet), dairy, eggs, produce, fruits, grains, dry beans, sugar, baked goods, canned goods, soaps, pottery, clothing, fabric, wooden utensils and dishes, and hand-made wooden toys.
"The Mercantile works directly with farmers and producers within 100 miles to bring the best to our customers and local economy," says Elizabeth. "Most food is involved in a long series of events. From farm to truck, from truck to processing plant, from plant to truck, from truck to warehouse, from warehouse to truck, and finally, if you're lucky, from truck to store and into that freezer. We decided to keep it simple by eliminating wholesalers (those extra steps) and work directly with each and every farmer and craftsman.
Page 4 of 6 - "If we worked with a distributor, we would never get the chance to meet the fantastic families that are responsible for the products that we sell. It gives us the chance to see carrots pulled out of the ground and delivered in the early morning before we open. We are allowed to look on as children help their mother make bread that will later be put on the shelf. We get to go behind the corporate curtain and see the faces along with the products," she adds.
Many of those faces and families are Mennonite farmers, who have embraced organic dairy farming in increasing numbers. A report from Food & Water Watch notes that Yates County was the only county to have an increase in the number of dairy farms in recent years, many operated by Mennonite families. The report states, "The Yates County experience demonstrates that more medium-sized farms can provide more economic benefit for rural communities, but Mennonite farming practices may provide little guidance for other independent producers. Mennonite farmers use fewer inputs and expensive equipment, rely on plenty of low-cost family labor and typically have little farm debt. These are pre-conditions that most farmers and communities will be unable to replicate." Nevertheless, with the high number and success of small Mennonite farms, Yates County seems destined to continue to increase its dairy production and prosperity.
John Hoover of Torrey is one of those Mennonite dairy farmers. At 35, he and his wife, Erma, and their five young children operate a farm with 69 acres of tillable land and about 30 head of dairy cows. The Hoovers bought their farm in 2000, and John took the advice of his father in keeping chemicals off the land, and keeping records of that practice. Facing consistently low milk prices in those first years, the Hoover's dairy was certified organic in 2004, and they have made a good living from the farm with a minimum of debt ever since. "Organic is definitely better for the land, and the feed is better for the cows," says John, estimating they would have to milk at least one third more cows in order to make a conventional dairy meet their bills.
The top quality milk they produce from fewer cows is the key to that success. Keeping the cows clean and dry with plenty of bedding and room to graze in fresh pastures is a large part of maintaining that quality, as is the vigor of his crossbred and Holstein cows. The cows are so healthy that John has been able to meet most of their medical needs himself with the help of a veterinary book. He estimates they've needed a vet to call only four times in the last seven years. "Most of the time if we can't take care of the problem, neither can the vet," he says. Tincture of garlic and aloe pellets successfully take the place of antibiotics in treating the very few cases of mastitis they get in some freshening cows.
Page 5 of 6 - The Hoovers are facing the same feed shortage all dairy farms see this year. The drought and the armyworms of the summer have limited what winter fodder is available. In the future, John would like to get up to the 40 head their barn can accommodate, but they are limited by the hands available. As their eldest son John Ray, 5, gets older and spends more time by his father's side, that increase will be possible, and the next generation of organic dairy farmer will learn his skills by first-hand experience.
"We're not farming that much differently. Everybody used to farm this way, " says John, referring to the broader rotation of pasturing, hay, corn, and small grains. "It's not that hard, but it scares a lot of people." He says it requires more management but less equipment, and is easier for a small family farm to succeed.
Hand in Hand with Sustainability
Along with the traditionalists who have incorporated organics in their farming, Yates County's innovators include Len Saner and Debbie Koop of Branchport. They raise certified organic and biodynamic hay and organically raised angus beef at Brookside Farm, where they are committed to sustainability, using solar panels and geothermal technology to meet their energy needs. As they approach retirement, Len and Debbie are downsizing their beef operation, but are committed to the farm remaining organic. They have signed a conservation easement on their second farm in Potter and will follow with one on Brookside as well, guaranteeing that the land will remain agricultural.
The Hunt's Bounty
Jonathan and Caroline Hunt, also near Branchport, are at the other end of the organic career chronology. They have just begun their certified organic vegetable farm, and have expanded into organically raised chickens who graze on grass and hay, organic feed mix, and vegetable scraps in large mobile pens in the open air. Their 400 chicks grow rapidly without the help of any hormones or food additives, and are ready for the table in just seven to eight weeks. With the healthy, uncrowded, outdoor living they enjoy while still being protected from predators, there is a very low mortality rate among Hunt's chickens. From the public's reaction to the Hunt's first Farm to Table picnic at Hunt Country Vineyards earlier this year, both the vegetables and the chickens taste of the wholesome manner in which they are raised. The Hunts plan to continue adding more acreage and diversity to their vegetable crops as demand increases.
Organics Will Grow
Reid believes demand will increase. "I think organic will continue to grow in Yates County. The high price of conventional commodities may restrict this growth in the mid-term. All grains are at historic highs, which may decrease the incentive for conventional growers to convert to organic. The high grain prices also limit the expansion of organic livestock (particularly dairy) as input costs limit profit margins for that sector. That said organic agriculture is a steady growth sector in terms of consumer demand, and will continue, in my opinion."
Page 6 of 6 - That growth is not guaranteed, however. In September 2010, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer revealed that food products produced in China that are fraudulently labeled 'organic' threaten to undermine Yates County's organic farming industry. Schumer said that reports have shown some Chinese growers are mislabeling their products as "organic," and he called on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to act more aggressively to halt the practice. If it continues, consumers' confidence in the "organic" brand could be undercut and the entire industry could be hurt.
Standing at Lakeview Organic Grain, Schumer said, "Organic produce and products are an increasingly lucrative industry in New York State, securing high prices and providing additional diversity to our farming economy. These higher prices, however, rely on consumers trusting that what they are purchasing is actually a high quality organic product, and the threat of phony Chinese organics entering our domestic market could undermine that confidence. The USDA must crack down immediately on these fraudulent products, to ensure continued growth and confidence in New York farmers' organic production."
Since 2011, the USDA has uncovered several bogus organic products coming from China as well as Turkey. Fines are little deterrent, being no more than $11,000 per violation in an industry valued at over $30 billion nationwide