Profile: Howell Martens

Profile: Howell Martens

Profile: Howell Martens

Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens,
Penn Yan, New York

Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens
"Successful organic farming involves much more than simply the avoidance of certain prohibited materials."
- Mary-Howell Martens

Soon after Klaas Martens and his wife, Mary-Howell, decided to stop using synthetic pesticides on their legume and grain farm in upstate New York, they started digging. It wasn't just the soil on their 900 acres they hoped to turn over; they also sought old research and forgotten information about organic farming methods.

They found it. Unearthing a series of research papers on weed control and soil science from the late 1930s and writings on soil chemistry from the 1940s and 1950s was just the beginning. The couple also discovered a wealth of information in the memories and experiences of older people in their small Finger Lakes community of Penn Yan who had farmed before the use of synthetics became widespread.

Mary-Howell Martens says the collective wisdom they've tapped in their efforts to grow the best crops without chemicals points them in one direction: soil health.

The more they've studied, the more they've come to believe soil composition matters more than any other weed and pest control regimen, no matter how strict. In fact, she claims that, 'anyone who thinks they can get into organic farming and just depend on mechanical weed control is in trouble.'

That's not to say the Martens don't own and use their share of cultivators and rotary hoes on their soybeans, wheat, triticale, corn and red beans. They've just come to believe their strongest ally in the fight against weeds and pests isn't something you can hook to a tractor, release from a sprayer, or even see with the naked eye. Instead, it's vigorous microbial activity in the soil, in combination with a proper balance of nutrients and minerals.

In his efforts to promote the maximum amount of biological activity in his soils, and to maintain the kind of mineral presence that both feeds plants and heightens tilth and absorption abilities, Klaas Martens has discovered the secret isn't necessarily in inputs. He uses ground fish and an organic bio-stimulant, but has concluded that 'a lot of it has to do with cover crops and a good rotation schedule.'

He refers to an early paper by German scientist Bernard Rademacher: 'If each crop is grown after its most suitable predecessor, the competition of weeds is checked through its vigor alone.'

Pests appear to like the Martens' soil improvement efforts about as much as weeds do. A recent extension service test of their 100-acre sweet corn crop yielded absolutely zero cutworms. Klaas later discovered some worm larvae on a few ears while harvesting, but the plants were the cleanest he'd ever seen or grown.

'They didn't get sprayed once,' he says. 'To my mind, those results are due to a good rotation schedule and strong plants in good, supportive soil that are healthy enough to discourage infestation without a lot of help from me.'

In recent years, Mary-Howell has published several articles in Acres USA magazine about the education she and her husband have undergone in their quest to make organic growing profitable. Her articles detail the weed and pest management practices they've adopted, provide rotation strategies, list their tillage and cultivation practices - as well as the equipment they use - and discuss the economics of growing organically as opposed to using chemical inputs.

In her writing, she makes clear that she and her husband believe both in doing their homework and in making farming a community affair. In the years since they switched to organic growing, about six neighboring farmers have followed suit. When others expressed interest, the Martens instituted regular monthly meetings where they and their fellow organic growers trade tips and get to know each other better.

'Klaas and I are so grounded now in studying soil chemistry and plant pathology, and rediscovering the expertise that was out there and generally available before chemicals made it all seem unnecessary,' she says. 'We like to see what we can do to support one another, how someone who has been organic for a while can help someone who is just getting interested.'

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