Yates County farm couple honored for sustainable agriculture efforts

Staff Writer
The Chronicle Express
Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens on their farm near Penn Yan.

Reprinted from Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture

Every two years, each SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program) region honors a farmer or farm couple who exemplify the use of sustainable farming in unique and effective ways with the Patrick Madden Award.  Named for the founding director of the SARE program, the award recognizes innovation, leadership and good stewardship.

The Northeast SARE region now formally announces that Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens of Penn Yan are the 2008 Madden Award recipients.  The couple were also runners-up for this award in 2002, when they were recognized for their pest and soil fertility management that relied on crop rotations and healthy soil management.

 Now, four years later, Klaas and Mary-Howell are even more highly regarded as innovative farmers, agricultural educators, and community leaders; renowned for their knowledge of organic grain production and marketing and their willingness to share that knowledge.

 The Martenses have been farming organically in the Finger Lakes Region since 1991.  Along with their children - Peter, Elizabeth and Daniel, they currently manage over 1,400 acres of organic cropland.  While corn, soybeans, dry beans and processing vegetables are their primary cash crops, they also grow many small grains, such as: barley, spelt, wheat, buckwheat and oats, which provide a diversified rotation to maintain soil health and manage weeds.  Working closely with local Natural Resource Conservation Service personnel, they have put in place an Agricultural Environmental management plan for their farm that uses extensive strip cropping, tile drainage, waterways and diversion ditches to help control erosion and improve water quality. 

“Soil quality and soil health are the most important factors in successful organic farming,” says Klaas.  “Our key agronomic practices focus on improving soil health, which then makes for healthier crops and more successful weed control.”

 In 1996 they started an organic feed business and by 2001 this enterprise had grown sufficiently to justify purchasing a local vacant feed mill. 

This operation, Lakeview Organic Grain, now employs seven full-time workers and two truck drivers.   It supplies organic feed to over 300 organic livestock farmers in New York and Pennsylvania; and crop seed and other supplies to farmers throughout the Northeast. 

The mill has become a key component of the area’s agricultural infrastructure, and the Martenses place high priority on purchasing New York grown grain directly from farmers to sell to New York livestock farmers. 

“We feel it is very important that all New York organic farmers benefit from the prosperity that these new opportunities have brought,” says Mary Howell.  “At Lakeview, we try to provide the information, products and support necessary to help New York Organic farmers be successful.”

 While the mill’s economic effect has been significant, Klaas and Mary-Howell are most often praised for their support for transitioning farmers, for their generosity with their time and expertise, for their focus on community prosperity and for their coupling of sustainable agriculture with rural development.

 They are founding members of New York Certified Organic, an educational and networking group of organic farmers who have been meeting together for over 12 years to share information and learn from one another.  Klaas and Mary-Howell also frequently speak at sustainable agriculture conferences throughout the United State and Canada.

 On their farm, the Martenses often participate in cooperative projects with Cornell and Penn State researchers. 

They were chosen as one of 11 focal farms for the Northeast Organic Network (NEON) project, a consortium of farmers, university researchers, extension educators and grassroots nonprofit organizations. 

Through this project, the agronomic and economics of their farm were studied intensively for two years and will be incorporated into a case study.  NEON’S goal is to address key research questions about fertility, pest management, and profitability.  Pictures of the Martens farm are on their website at www.neon.cornell.edu.

 Since 1997 Mary-Howell has been a freelance writer for Acres USA and Rodale Institute’s New Farm magazine, writing articles on organic crop improvement, biotechnology and agricultural sustainability.

In 2000, Mary-Howell was appointed to the USDA Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology. 

In 2007 she testified before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture. 

She currently serves on the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Science Dean’s Advisory Committee and the newly formed New York Agriculture and Markets Organic Agriculture Advisory Committee.  She is also a member of the Yates County Farm Bureau Board of Directors.

 Klaas has participated in the Scientific Congress of Organic Agricultural Research and now reviews grant proposals for Northeast SARE. 

He consults on several farms and on Cornell University research programs. 

Klaas is Yates County Soil and Water Conservation District director.  The couple have used Northeast SARE Farmer Grants for farm-based research on growing kiwi, tracking soil nutrient levels and testing the use of pelleted starter composts.