Building the Organic Neighborhood
BY MARY-HOWELL AND KLAAS MARTENS
American agriculture has a serious problem. The average American grain farmer is in their 60’s, often lacking a ‘next generation’ willing to carry forward their parents’ dreams, hard-earned success, and, perhaps most importantly, their parents’ debt. Generational transfer, especially when there are both farming and non-farming heirs, is a serious challenge when the family property is held in not easily negotiable land, equipment and animals. This can make distributing inheritance equitably amongst all the heirs fraught and perceivably unfair.
Often, this challenge is solved by selling the farm. The entry of massive amounts of corporate/foreign private equity and venture capital money into rural America has resulted in many small independent farms being consolidated into large, absentee-held acreage, with hired farm managers and migrant workers replacing farm families. As small towns empty, the local schools, stores, churches and community services are gutted, leaving behind insidious rural poverty without the support of young families and active tax revenue. It is nearly impossible for us to believe in a future of regained local land ownership and vibrant functional communities once outside investment money buys our farmland.
The absentee landlord-owned farming system has a strong incentive to generate maximum annual income with little to no maintenance or improving the health of the soil. The Midwest is losing on average 2 pounds of topsoil for every pound of corn produced and several times that much soil for every pound of soybeans. Over the past 50 years, nearly every attempt to require basic soil conservation as a precondition for subsidy payments has failed. The biggest crop production subsidies now are buried in the crop insurance system and even there, where good soil conservation clearly reduces long-term risk, the system penalizes many good practices and rewards those who seek short-term gains.
Effectively incentivizing sound land management is far simpler than replacing farmers. The biggest hurdle to changing our modern agricultural dynamic is the ability to replace generations of knowledge, commitment and skill with young engaged farmers.
How do we develop new populations of farm families willing to support our rural communities, manage our land, and produce our food in an environmentally sound, forward-looking manner? Where do we find young people willing to provide the essential post-harvest infrastructure, the feed mills, grain cleaning plants, distribution hubs, and processing facilities essential to sustain a viable, healthy regional agricultural economy?
How do we develop a system that successfully recruits and trains young farmers, perhaps from non-traditional backgrounds, to produce a diverse “complete local diet” – vegetables, grains for food and feed, fruits, forage, livestock/poultry production, along with sufficient infrastructure to procure reasonable regional food security and self-sufficiency? – How do we establish a group of autonomous but cooperatively linked farms, rewarded by the powerful incentives of business ownership, autonomy and self-determination, but working within a larger community for common goals of food security, sustainable land management, shared equipment, education and community?
On our farm, we have been testing a model that seeks to deal with the issues of land access, generational transfer, diversification, and empowering/training young farmers while improving farm biodiversity, environmental stewardship, reliable markets, and regional infrastructure.
We call it our “Organic Neighborhood”, and it is still very much a work in progress, but we are much encouraged by what we see so far. We like good neighbors and we want more!
Our farm’s land base consists of 450-acres of owned land, 1300-acres of leased land, and about 200-other acres that are owned by cooperating farmers, used in conjunction with our directly controlled land. This land is managed mainly now by our older son, Peter Martens and his employees, with frequent valuable assistance from Klaas.
Our entire land base is managed under active conservation and nutrient management plans and is enrolled in NY Ag&Markets’ Agricultural Environmental Management Program (AEM) through our conservation district. We have invested considerable money in capital improvements on both the rented and owned land each year. Most of this investment is for conservation structures such as diversion ditches and water/sediment control basins. Contour farming, strip cropping, drainage, stream bank protection, and other soil health improvement practices are used on all the land, regardless of ownership. Most landowners appreciate that we invest in improving their land and are willing to negotiate rental agreements that allow us long-term use of their land so that we can recover the cost of the improvements with provisions to reimburse us for the un-depreciated residual cost of the improvements in the event that the land is sold before we have recovered our investments.
In the United States, many smaller farms have neither sufficient acreage nor the right equipment to do a good job of crop rotation, markets that do not reward diversification and may not make good use of planned intentional soil and land conservation to reduce erosion, improve water management, and enhance soil health. Operating within a larger Neighborhood of farms could provide incentives for better land stewardship.
It is important not to confuse ‘land tenancy’ with ‘land ownership’. In many cases, ownership of the land is not nearly as important as the control of the land. Our son, Peter, has aggressively acquired considerable rental land, knowing that his profit comes not in ownership but in production. Investors interested in purchasing acreage should see the benefits of supporting a Neighborhood model as a means to make their investment perform better.
In many areas there is a serious deficiency in the infrastructure necessary to buy, process, package, chill, store, pasteurize, weigh, butcher, grind, ferment and market farm products. Regional animal feed mills, food-grade flour mills, seed cleaning equipment, cold storage facilities, slaughterhouses, truck scales, grain bins, transportation/loading facilities, plus trucks, forklifts, and other handling and transportation equipment are essential for the sustainable development and persistence of an agricultural community. Often the actual farming of products is the easiest part – it is the post-harvest handling, transportation, and processing that create the biggest costs, bottlenecks, frustrations and risk.
In the early 1990s, we saw an opportunity to produce organic dairy feed from our corn and small grains and purchased the local Agway feed mill in Penn Yan in 2001. Since then, Lakeview Organic Grain has been managed by Mary-Howell with, more recently, our younger son Daniel. Lakeview buys mostly New York-grown organic grains from local farmers and produces organic dairy, poultry and small animal feed that is shipped throughout the Northeast. Lakeview also sells grain, cover crop and pasture seed, and retail bagged feed for the ‘backyard chicken crowd’. Over the past 10 years, the growth of small and midsize organic poultry and small animal feed demand has accelerated enormously as organic dairy feed demand has flattened.
In many ways, Lakeview has been the quiet glue pasting together the financial stability and supply for numerous organic grain and dairy farms in the Northeast for many years. Now, as Mary-Howell contemplates semi-retirement, Daniel and Peter are actively planning the construction of a new feed mill, with modern equipment, automation, and greatly expanded capabilities. Within five years, this new feed mill should be functional, giving Lakeview the ability to continue as a hub to purchase grain from local farmers, deliver feed to others, sell seed to all, thus providing markets, supplies, grain storage, economic stability, information support, and continuity.
Additionally, Peter and several of his employees have started another stand-alone business called Seneca Grain and Bean which markets high-quality organic food-grade grains and dry beans, both wholesale and retail. The key piece enabling this business to grow is a state-of-the-art grain cleaning facility built on the farm 3 years ago, and a modern grain drying system that allows the purchase of larger quantities of grain at harvest from local farmers. Seneca Grain and Bean is currently selling to several regional bakeries and flour mills, and this spring, our small local artisan bakery will market special sourdough bread of their grain. That is some seriously delicious synergy!
Our farm and many other early-adopter organic farms are facing the interesting process of succession to a new generation coming of age in a very different world than we did. This is a world of industrial-scale and global ‘organic’ farming, imported grain and consolidating markets, vast corporate/private equity/foreign investment in agriculture, internet sales and information, a changing demographic of people willing to farm, increasing costs of land and equipment, challenges of affordable/sustainable energy and agricultural inputs, the emerging science of soil health and non-chemical pest control, and of course, a changing climate. The innocent ‘golden’ years of organic farming are over. In this fast-paced, demanding world, there is very little room for error, learning or idealism.
Because often young people from non-agricultural backgrounds lack technical skills, financing or equipment, many new farmers choose to grow vegetables, poultry and small fruit instead of grain, tree fruit or large animals. Certainly, the world needs more organic vegetables, but too often these new farmers end up competing against each other for the same limited customer base, driving prices down and threatening a sense of community. Pandemic-induced restaurant and tourist shutdowns have been absolutely devastating for many farmers who direct-market their crops and meats to restaurants, tourist attractions and schools. Intentionally creating Neighborhoods of complementary rather than competitive enterprises would be a significant advantage for these producers.
In the United States, our ‘emotional standard’ is the independently-owned family farm but that may not be the best or most likely model for the future. Not only does a family farm limit choices if farmers decide to change careers, but it can also consume all family resources, leaving little room for other choices, flexibility or opinions. A family farm also can be unexpectedly lonely, extremely stressful and even boring, and simply may not be the long-term future that young people want to tightly tether themselves to. At the same time, employees on investment farms often lack the ownership incentive or autonomy so needed to justify and give the ‘fire in the belly’ necessary for making the sacrifices, time, financial commitment, and risk that farming demands, or the desire to improve and conserve land that is not theirs. The bottom line is that young people need flexibility to learn and decide, and once they do, they need autonomy and the ability to build equity/ownership in the farm to keep going. They need to know they are creating something of tangible value and security for themselves and their families.
In the United States, there are young people who want to farm as their career, but many end up as farm managers, often moving from farm to farm if secure land tenancy is unattainable. The rate of burnout and attrition amongst these people is very high for very good reasons.
For women and for families, farming with small children is difficult without good community support and resources. There are additional barriers for People of Color, people with disabilities, people without innate mechanical ability, people with credit/financial limitations, people without partners willing to share the physical work, just to name a few. Too often we assume that if we provide enough information and technical resources, young farmers magically will know how to farm but in reality, there is a real need to learn within a community, to see how and why things are done, ask questions, experiment, and participate.
Our local agricultural community is largely Old Order Mennonite, with strong ethics of both community cooperative work and fierce individual business ownership. However, land is increasingly priced beyond what is feasible for young families, so many Mennonite young folks are choosing other careers in construction, equipment repair, woodworking, direct market vegetables, or diversifying small farms with multiple enterprises. A few of the outward-looking young Mennonite farmers are key pieces in our Organic Neighborhood, bringing mechanical skills, creative energy, and unrelenting work habits that inspire us all.
As our farm transitions to a new generation, our land base is now supporting three dairy farms and three crop farms, each owned and managed independently but working within a larger group of very highly motivated creative young farmers, processors and employees.
Our vision of Neighborhood is to capture the economies of scale and the efficiencies of cutting-edge technology while keeping the management and ownership of the enterprises on a smaller family farm scale. We hope to add additional enterprises to this land base without needing to increase the acreage, thereby making all of the other enterprises stronger by increasing diversity. With Klaas and Peter’s managerial experience and energy (especially in the tougher moments), we currently include eight farmers who have the needed skills and motivation. We believe that once we include three or four additional farmers to take over other key enterprises, this will be a self-sustaining system.
Rather than one huge farm with millions in capital investment and central management, labor supplied by underpaid workers and the profits going to one owner, the Neighborhood model is divided into small cooperating sole proprietorships that are essential and complementary to each other. It is similar to a feudal manor system: self-sufficient as a whole but managed by independent entrepreneurs.
The enterprises must fit together in a way that is complementary to each other. Waste streams from one enterprise become essential inputs to another. The dairy farms feed cover crops for forage that grew on the grain fields. Crop residues are grazed after harvest, and byproducts from processing are fed for livestock. Manure from the dairy farms is fertilizer for the grain fields. Tractors that pull tillage equipment in the spring and fall haul manure between planting seasons.
Two of the crop farmers are interested in providing custom farming services as a way to generate income and justify owning newer equipment. Working with others within the group, they will have the assurance of enough income from custom harvesting to pay themselves a decent wage and maintain the equipment. Instead of maintaining separate forage choppers and forage wagons on the three dairy farms, one custom operator with a large chopper can harvest the same amount of forage in much less time. One new large harvester costs less than three small ones. GPS-equipped European technology makes large-scale organic weed control efficient and feasible, and when distributed over a larger land base, also affordable.
PAYING THE BILLS
The bottom line is that farms are businesses and therefore they must be profitable to be viable and sustainable. Each farm must make sufficient income and provide a sufficiently satisfying lifestyle to reward the choice. Therefore, all planning we do must use this lens: an Organic Neighborhood must ensure that all the component farms and the supporting infrastructure are adequately profitable. Without that, this ambitious project cannot succeed.
Organic grain is making very good income today at current prices but that is driving the cost of animal feed beyond what is economically feasible for many farms – and the feed mills that serve them! By feeding cover crops as forages and using ‘waste’ materials from grain cleaning and processing, the costs of feeding animals is much reduced.
Farms must have access to capital for improvement and expansion. We are helping two of the farmers in the group qualify for USDA Farm Services beginning farmer loans, plus Klaas and Peter are working with NRCS to approve these farms for major cost-sharing land management and manure handling systems. There is money available to beginning farmers, but navigating the system and make the best use of the money is a hard-earned skill.
Klaas is working with the local Soil and Water program and the county Economic Development Agency to explore the possibility of forming an Irrigation District. Access to irrigation water from our Finger Lakes would be helpful to the dairy farmers to maintain pasture quality, but would also open the possibility of adding a fresh vegetable enterprise to the mix. Klaas is also talking with local solar installers about ‘agro-voltaics’ – elevated solar panels installed in pastures in a manner that makes grazing and energy generation complementary. We have installed solar panels on many barn roof surfaces on our farm, generating much of the stationary electricity we use on the farm, and we have plans to expand this capacity within the next few years.
If we can successfully develop an Organic Neighborhood of cooperating farms and businesses around us, perhaps we can see that ‘food security’ is not just another government program and ‘risk management’ is not just another crop insurance policy. Instead, they are people and enterprises, they are our neighbors, working together in synergy.
Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens, along with their son Peter, farm 2500 acres of certified organic grain and dairy in Penn Yan, NY. The farm has been certified organic since 1992. Mary-Howell and their younger son, Daniel, operate Lakeview Organic Grain, an organic animal feed and seed operation.