Martens sprout seed industry

John Christensen
Yi Qiu, Wang Zhen (Inner Mongolia Agricultural University), Dr. Alan Taylor (Cornell University/Geneva AgriTech), Hanna Martens, Emily Martens, Peter Martens, Klaas Martens, Mary-Howell Martens, and NY Commissioner of Agriculture Richard Ball in the Martens new seed cleaning facility.

N.Y. State Ag. and Markets Commissioner Richard A. Ball was in Yates County last Thursday to tour a modern seed cleaning and sorting facility designed in China that brings artificial intelligence and internet connectivity to local agri-business.

Klaas, Mary-Howell, and Peter Martens escorted Ball on the tour of their newly built, geothermally climate controlled processing facility and warehouse at the family farm on Ridge Road in Torrey. With them were the Chinese engineers who oversaw the manufacture of the machines in China, and are overseeing their installation at the Martens’ farm.

Using local contractors, many of them Mennonites, to build the super-insulated facility and assemble the imported equipment, Klaas praised the local workers’ skill, speed, and adaptability. Just three weeks after work started, the mechanicals are complete, and wiring should be finished by today with the switch ready to be thrown. Klaas says the local workers completed the job a week faster than Chinese workers were able to do, and without the language barrier the Martens faced.

Mary-Howell says they used an iPhone translator app and were helped by some Chinese graduate students from Cornell to communicate with lead engineer, Mr. Xu, who travelled from China and stayed at the Martens’ farm during the project. Xu has overseen construction of similar sorters in 22 countries around the world, but this is the first in the U.S. Peter says work sped up considerably once Xu discovered that the workers here could read the blueprints for themselves rather than needing explicit instruction at every stage.

Also on the tour was Alan Taylor, Cornell professor of seed technology whose work emphasizes post-harvest aspects of seed quality and dormancy, and seed treatments and coating technologies. It was a reunion of sorts as Mary-Howell was one of Taylor’s first students at Cornell.

Both Ball and Taylor were greatly interested in seeing this most up-to-date seed cleaning facility, which includes a pre-cleaner, air stream cleaner, de-stoner, a magnetic cleaner, gravity cable, and a polisher, all with suction for dust control. United with this in the holistically designed facility is the optical color seed sorting machine which uses artificial intelligence to do a visual analysis of every seed of any type or size, even down to mustard seeds. It also sorts out diseased seeds, greatly decreasing the spread of plant pathogens.

“All of this has been engineered to work together,” says Klaas. “The anti-dust system lets the optical sorter work, and the geothermal construction maintains temperature and humidity.” That cleanliness and control is vital to the function of the machinery and to the production of quality seeds; and temperature and humidity control is vital to the storage of organic seeds. 

New York was once the leader in dry bean production, says Klaas, but it hasn’t kept up with the demands of the modern market. Transporting seed to and back from more modern facilities out of state added greatly to the Martens’ costs. This new facility makes them a leader in the nation. “Now we are raising the bar instead of chasing it,” says Klaas with some justifiable pride.

However, with that pride also comes some frustration. He explains with the Trump administration’s trade war and steel tariffs came significant consequences to the  Martens’ project. Costs rose by 25 percent from the agreed price arranged before the tariffs, and the world market for U.S. seed and dry beans, as well as soybeans and corn, has plummeted as nations protest the U.S. tariffs.

“This trade war jacked up our costs and has taken away our markets in one fell swoop,” says Klaas, who credits Commissioner Ball with trying to reduce the impact of the trade war on the state’s agriculture industry. “He has had to work very hard to avoid other losses and limit the damage to New York farmers.” He also used his political capital with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to keep the N.Y. Seed Lab in the state as well as its modernization and relocation to Albany, according to the Martens.

Agricultural facilities with this level of technology are part of the reason rural areas need reliable high-speed internet connections, which is why the Martens installed their own fiber optic cable recently, enabling them to connect to a Internet Service Provider.  

Ball has served as Commissioner of Agriculture for the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets since 2014, and is the  owner and operator of Schoharie Valley Farms, consisting of 200 acres and produces a wide range of vegetable crops, small fruits, and greenhouse crops, and serves both retail and wholesale consumers through an onsite farm market.

He currently serves as Secretary-Treasurer on the National Association of State Department of Agriculture (NASDA) Board of Directors and as the Association’s Food Regulation Committee Chair. He is also the President of Food Export Northeast.