Fire, one of any farmer’s worst fears, struck the Martens’ family farm, one of the largest organic grain producers in the nation, Saturday night, Sept. 23.
At approximately 10:45 p.m. Yates County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Hansen was returning home from a long shift when he passed the farm on Ridge Road in Torrey, and saw the main barns already filled with flames. Contacting dispatch and alerting owners Klaas & Mary-Howell Martens, Hansen’s call was joined by others seeing the massive blaze, including a passing airplane that called it in to Air Traffic Control in Cleveland, Ohio.
Trying to rescue livestock and equipment, Klaas was driven back by the intense heat. The barns had just been filled with the large round bales of hay and straw for the coming winter, fueling the fire even more than the timbers of the 150 and 100-year-old barns that were already awash in flame.
Explosions burst out from the fuel tanks and tires of the truck and equipment, but one massive blast is believed to have come from a large fertilizer hopper, with witnesses recalling a mushroom cloud illuminated by fire, and a shock wave felt in the village of Penn Yan.
Fire Departments from Dresden, Penn Yan, Benton, Bellona, Potter, Himrod, Dundee, and Branchport/Keuka Park responded quickly to the call. By 11:15, literally hundreds of people had come, many of them the Martens’ Mennonite neighbors arriving on the fire trucks, by bicycle, or by foot running across the fields to offer aid. Engines and tankers bringing water from the hydrant on Rte. 54 were aided by the proximity of the farm pond and the westerly direction of the wind in containing the fire to the oldest barns. The firefighters worked to contain the fire until after 4 a.m.
Remarkably, no injuries were reported, other than Klaas being singed while trying to move a truck loaded with hay that caught fire as he moved it away. Most of the livestock were out at pasture during the fire, but about 12 of the 30 pigs died in the fire, along with two calves. Mary-Howell says the memory of the pigs suffering is still lingering for her.
“Our yard looks like a bombed-out war scene,” she posted in response to friends’ inquiries on social media; “drifts of smoking round bales, twisted metal, burned-out hulks of our son’s pickup truck, one car, two tractor trailers, the old Ferguson tractor a beloved neighbor gave us before he died, wet piles of the oat seed we were planning to sell next spring, burnt bones of our spelt dehuller, twisted frame and sheets of charred roofing of the barn, what remains of the pen where the pigs were trapped with echoes of that awful scream of pure fear when the fire hit them still lingering.”
But hope and optimism are one of the hallmarks of Klaas Martens’ character. Even as the flames were still claiming so much of his work and his grain operation’s vital equipment, his thoughts were of gratitude. Turning to the family home that was once his grandparents’, Klaas said, “No one was hurt. I still have a house to live in. Think of all the people in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands who have nothing right now. I am humbled by all the people who came here to offer to help. What a wonderful community we live in. That is the real story here!”
Sunday morning with smoke still rising from the smoldering bales lying in the ruins of the barn, and as the Martens surveyed the damage with Yates County Fire Investigators, eldest son and business partner Peter Martens remarked on the dozens of Mennonite neighbors who arrived in work clothes rather than church attire, ready to begin the cleanup and prepare for a new barn raising. However, the site has to be preserved for the insurance claims adjusters to examine. Yates County Fire Investigators say the fire is not believed to be suspicious in origin, but the newly-loaded hay or electrical issues cannot be ruled out.
The Martens are facing the task of listing all the items that were in the barns for their insurance claim, with only a ballpark estimate of about $500,000; a number that would have been considerably higher if the two combines had been in the barns at the time. Peter says their worst loss was the spelt de-huller, a very specialized part of the milling process and one of only a few in the country. Getting a new one will take months, says Peter. “The company doesn’t keep them in stock — they build them after you order one — and then it’s a month to get here by ship.” There may be one available in North Dakota, but both the trucks to get them with were lost in the fire, he adds.
“But remarkably,” says Mary-Howell, “the bin of Kosher spelt that was right beside the worst of the blaze, complete with its full propane tank, is not even charred, and when the rabbis got here from Brooklyn late yesterday (Sunday) afternoon and checked the grain, it looks fine! Somehow in the midst of the destruction, it still stands.”
All the Martens join in Klaas’ confidence that they will rebuild and will make something even better. The newest barn with its photo-voltaic solar panel array was saved, and the new barns will give them another chance to introduce modern construction and technologies into the business that is connected to so many others in the local agricultural economy and tight-knit community.