Equipped with hand sanitizer and face masks, I began my fifty-mile bike ride to interview Klaas Martens, an organic farmer from Penn Yan, New York. On the way, I saw a “For Sale” sign outside a small complex called Freedom Village. I got barked at by too many guard dogs and I conquered obnoxiously long, steep hills that made my thighs scream.
I passed by miles upon miles of corn fields. Corn is a major New York crop with 1 million acres planted yearly. For reference, New York State is 30 million total acres, of which 18.9 million acres are uninhabited forest. Corn fields blanket New York.
Biking past these corn fields reminded me of two stories.
The first story is about cows. In the early twentieth century, Dr. William Albrecht, chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri, performed an experiment on cows to determine the effect of soil health on total caloric consumption. Albrecht knew that cows feeding on well-mineralized soils ate balanced diets. But, when he kept the cows in a barn and fed them a predetermined amount of grain, the cows never ceased eating, overindulging in a vain attempt to make up with sheer volume what they were not getting in their food. Albrcht concluded that humans, like cows, will stuff themselves for the same reason. Starved of micronutrients, we will keep eating in the hope of attaining them.
The second is about carrots. A few years ago, Jack Algiere, the lead farmer at Stone Barns Farm in Pocantico Hills, New York, pitted two types of carrots against each other to determine the effect of soil health on a food’s flavor and nutrition. Jack tested mokum carrots, cultivated by his team at Stone Barns and he tested another bunch of carrots grown on an industrial organic farm in México. Jack brought out his refractometer, a tool for measuring the Brix, or amount of sugar present in a fruit or vegetable. These natural sugars indicate the presence of healthy oils and amino acids, proteins, and minerals. A high Brix rating means a surplus of flavor and nutrition. Jack stabbed the carrots with the refractometer. “Sixteen-point-nine, pal,” Jack said. Farmer Jack’s mokum carrots earned a Brix rating of 16.9. How about industrial carrots? “Zero. Zero point zero,” Jack exclaimed. No detectable sugars present.
The corn fields reminded me of these stories because most of this corn is cultivated conventionally, which means that farmers use fertilizers such as “Smart Nitrogen.” In many cases, these fertilizers take the place of true, organic farming practices such as crop rotation and cover crops, which foster soil health and fertility. The difference between these two agricultural practices is the difference between the well-fed cow and the gurging cow. It is the difference between the 16.9 carrot and 0.0 carrot. I was after delicious and nutritious food. Klaas was the person to visit.
The plan was to arrive at Martens Farm in Penn Yan by eight in the evening. That way, my friend and I would be able to watch the sunset over the fields, make camp on the farm before it got dark and I would have time to review my notes for the day ahead with Klaas. Instead, we arrived after nine o’clock, and, by that time, it was too dark.
We found Klaas on his tractor in the dark making passes on a field of kidney beans. After fifteen minutes, he parked his tractor, stepped down from the machine and made his way towards us. He was wearing a beaten Steuben Brewery cap, a solid, grey flannel with a breast pocket, a light blue pair of Wrangler jeans, and dark brown leather boots. His large, blue eyes illuminated his face.
“Hi, I’m Klaas. It’s great to meet you.”
“Klaas, I’m Jack. Thank you for the time.”
For an hour, Klaas showed us around his processing factory. This facility processes the farm’s crops, which include kidney beans, black beans, alfalfa, Frederick’s wheat and several others.
He went into precise detail on each and every machine. He discussed the electrical system. Some highlights: Klaas makes his own solar energy (he tells me that his solar is half the cost of electricity from the grid), the facility can process ten tons of crops every day, and the whole system was designed by Klaas and a Chinese manufacturer. Seeing the facility was quite cool because it showed that Klaas was actually vertically integrating his farm. This allows him to sell organic products directly to bakeries, mills, and restaurants.
The next day, Klaas took us around the fields. Naturally, Operation Velvetleaf Eradication surfaced into our conversations. Operation Velvetleaf is a story that depicts the distinction between conventional and polycultural agriculture.
Here’s how it goes: Back in 1994, Klaas and his wife Mary-Howell rented a farm nearby Martens Farm. “The field was a total disaster. It was a crime lab of past sins,” Klaas remembers. “[The farmer] told me this field was worthless. And when I got in here, I started to believe him. Weeds were exploding. The velvetleaf, [a weed], looked like trees.”
The previous farmer had primarily grown corn. Klaas remembers that the corn began to go downhill — it grew smaller each year and it was losing its sugar content, or Brix. Klaas told me that compromised plant fertility shows up first in the quality of what’s harvested.
Klaas decided to plant spelt, a “perfect soil builder because its extensive root systems reach deep into the ground, creating air pockets that allow the soil to breathe and beginning the cleanse.” Then, he planted clover, which fixes nitrogen. Clover also “provides the soil with sugars, proteins and minerals which furthers the soil’s aeration by attracting earthworms.”
After a few more crop rotations (mustard seed to increase sulphur levels and kidney beans for nitrogen), Klaas had changed the soil conditions so drastically that his crops had become the dominant crop while the velvetleaf, one being twelve feet tall with a mile of hardened roots, had shrunk. The velvetleaf was attacked by whiteflies. The whiteflies, Klaas recalls, were “acting like nature’s cleanup crew, attacking the least fit species.”
All of these farming practices had been missing from the previous farmer’s chemical regime. Synthetic fertilizers supplied the corn with nitrogen for fast growth, but the soil was ignored. At this point, I told Klaas about the corn fields I biked by on the way to his farm and the signs for “Smart Nitrogen” that dotted these fields. Klaas simply nodded.
Klaas began farming after college in a conventional way. He used herbicides, insecticides, fungicides; his cropping system was not very diverse. During this time, his herbicides would quickly become ineffective. He would constantly have to change his chemicals. He said he was farming with a succession of problems. In the 1980s, he came to the conclusion that his family needed a niche because his farm was not very profitable. At this time, he came across an advertisement in a local newspaper from a processor looking for organic wheat; the price was double what Klaas was receiving at the time from his conventional wheat. He decided to make the change.
Klaas made the change decades ago, and he never looked back. To Klaas, farming is at its best when there is one thing: diversity. Without diversity, especially diversity of crops, we will be like Dr. Albecht’s cows: Overindulging in a vain attempt to make up with sheer volume the nutrients and vitamins we are not getting in our food.
Take these final words with you: “The organic farmer would look for the cause. The chemical farmer would treat the symptom with spray.”
Jack Waxman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.