This week we speak with Mark and Ernest Martin, who are Organic Valley dairy farmers in Ohio. In 1993, Mark picked up his family and moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio in search of new farmland, and his brother Ernest followed about a year later.
Host Theresa Marquez had a wonderful conversation with the Martins about farming in the Mennonite tradition and what farming organically means to them and their families. Especially interesting was their discussion of how passing the farm from one generation to the next works in Mennonite families.
Another particularly interesting quote was this from Ernest: “I think if you look at the future of organic farming, I really don’t like the term ‘sustainable farming,’ because if you talk about sustainable farming you’re just talking about sustaining what you already have. Now, if your farm is not [in] very good shape, sustaining the farm that way is not what I want to do. I want to improve my farm. So I like to think about ‘regenerative farming.’” What a wise way of thinking about sustainable farming.
We hope you enjoy this episode as much as we enjoyed making it.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Mark and Ernest Martin
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Welcome, friends. Today we are going to hear from brothers Ernest and Mark Martin, both organic farmers in Richland County, Ohio. I will say this about Ernest and Mark, besides that they are two of my favorite organic dairy farmers: they are very passionate. They’re passionate about grass and pasture and healthy animals, and of course family farming in a Mennonite tradition. I hope you enjoy this.
MARK MARTIN: We’re in Shiloh, Ohio. We’re about 30 to 40 miles south of Lake Erie, right in the middle of the state, right where Lake Erie dips down to its lowest point.
TM: Well, I’m very honored to be interviewing you today, and it’s such a pleasure to know that you’re organic farmers. When did you decide to go from conventional to organic farming?
MM: Well, I grew up, of course, with an organic garden. My mom did organic gardening, and she subscribed to the Organic Gardening magazine, so that was the influence that I had. But when I was about twenty-two years old I started farming—got married and started farming. And it was at that point already where I was not wanting to use chemicals. But I didn’t really make the switch completely—well, it was early 1990s when I started, and I was a couple years into farming. And I decided to do the rotational or intensive grazing and started looking for markets. And at that point I contacted Organic Valley, and the market came along, and it just fit in with what I always liked.
TM: Well, that’s very interesting. But you were around all-conventional farming, and weren’t you also conventional farming?
MM: Yes, well, as far as… Yes, I was still conventional farming. I did not do any grazing. We still used some chemicals there in the beginning, the first couple years, about, I guess two years. And yeah, the influence was very strong to stay conventional, because this was a new thing at that time. Our farm was the first farm certified [organic] in the state of Ohio that actually shipped milk, on a wholesale basis.
TM: Well, you said you were really interested in grazing. What attracted you to it?
MM: I guess…it’s kind of a long story but I’ll try and make it short. When we moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio we lost about… We had a bunch of… I bought this herd of cows that I took along with the herd that I already had. I wanted to milk more cows in Ohio. And we lost a bunch of cows that first spring. And somebody told me I should give intensive grazing a try, graze my cows. And at that time I wanted organic, but I never really understood grazing until I talked with a cousin from Wisconsin, and he advised me to give it a try. And we did, and we really liked it. It was exactly… After we tried it, I found out it is exactly what I’m looking for.
TM: Ernest, did you follow right after that?
ERNEST MARTIN: I did. I was a little bit later in the process. We moved on a different farm, so that put us back a year or two—although I will say I never, personally, never sprayed any chemicals on my farm. I had somebody hired to do it for a year or two when I started farming. But there were never any GMOs planted on my farm. I’m very thankful for that. GMOs were just getting to be the rage when I was starting to farm, but we never used any GMOs on our farm, so that’s something I’m very thankful for.
TM: Well, you know, it’s interesting that you’re talking about GMOs and spraying. I was telling someone that we have a lot of Amish and Mennonite farmers in our dairy program who are organic. And they said, “Aren’t all Amish and Mennonites organic?”
EM: Unfortunately not. There is a perception that they may be, but no, no. That’s one thing about the Mennonite history, Amish/Mennonite history, is we have always been fairly progressive in farming, in past history, back in the 1600s and so on. So when some of this new, like GMOs and chemicals came on, it sounded too good to be true, I guess. But they tried it, and there’s a lot of people that really bought into the system. And I feel it’s a system that’s not sustainable by any means.
MM: I’d like to add to that, that our ancestors have always kind of, if I may say it that way, prided themselves on the fact that they were farmers to the core. They had very nice farms, they took very well care of them. And so if you could grow crops—let’s say, for instance, chemicals for weed control—if you could grow crops, you know, nice clean fields of very nice crops, that was something that they really went for. And being as agriculture was our major source of income, you know, we work hard to do a very good job because that’s what we exist on. We usually don’t have, if we are farming we don’t hold a second job. That’s our sole source of income.
TM: Well, you know, what do you think? Do you like farming organic?
MM: Oh yeah, it just fits with the way I think. I feel that’s the way it should be. The Bible tells us we should be good stewards of the soil, and I just can’t see the other way. There is a mix where you can maybe do some, but it just doesn’t completely fit the idea of being a good steward of the soil.
A lot of these farmers, especially if they don’t have livestock—if they have livestock they can do some. But a lot of your big farms, if you drive through the country and you see these big tractors and big equipment, those guys for the most part don’t have any livestock and their organic matters, which are also in a sense carbon—you know, there’s this concern about carbon sequestration. And the farmer is looking at the same thing from a different direction. We’re looking at it as organic matter, and we have to build organic matter to be able to be more drought-tolerant and so on, and of course grow better crops. So it just fits a whole lot better. We’re doing a better job, I feel, in general. It’s been proven, there’s been lots of changes been made, and some of the university studies have shown that too, that the soils can really be improved. In a matter of a couple years you see a big difference.
EM: To add to that, I think livestock is part of the whole. I think if you look at the future of organic farming, I really don’t like the term “sustainable farming,” because if you talk about sustainable farming you’re just talking about sustaining what you already have. Now, if your farm is not [in] very good shape, sustaining the farm that way is not what I want to do. I want to improve my farm. So I like to think about “regenerative farming.”
And I think livestock is part of that whole. It will be part of the whole in the future. It completes a cycle. If you have… The way conventional agriculture works today, they have these huge mega operations of dairy cows, chickens, poultry or swine, whatever it may be, and then they grow their crops thousands of miles away. And those nutrients should be returned back to the soil where the feed was grown, and it’s not. There’s a huge gap there. And I think that’s part of the future of organic agriculture.
TM: Ernest, boy, I sure agree with that, and that’s a really fantastic statement that you just made, keeping that fertilizer and those nutrients close to home. Do you have some favorite parts of organic farming that you like? And is it working with livestock? And is that hard, too, to be working with livestock organic? I hear from some of the farmers that that was the biggest challenge of going organic for them.
EM: Well, the biggest challenge was not actually… Once we decided to do it, it wasn’t that much of a challenge. The biggest challenge was getting past the fact that you could do it organically. We thought… It was a mindset thing. You know, we were so used to… I didn’t use a lot of antibiotics; we used some. We used very little breeding hormones, a few here and there. And that’s a whole other story—I don’t agree with hormones at all now since I’ve learned a whole lot more about organics and the way nature should work. But the biggest, it was more or less a mindset thing, to leave those tools behind, what we thought were needed tools. And they weren’t that important after we had our soil built up, after you get the health of the livestock where it should be, and in harmony with nature. It’s not a big deal. It’s easy—almost too easy.
TM: Do you think that organic is compatible with your lifestyle?
EM: Well, my wife and I have nine children; the oldest is twenty, the youngest is nine months. And raising a family on a farm, we have this thing, when we sit down at the dinner table, we look at what’s on the table. And this varies from day to day or from season to season, how much of our food is grown organically. But we like to see what’s grown on the farm and where it came from.
To have my children out there helping me on an organic farm is… I don’t need to worry about chemicals or getting into… My neighbors spray, and I’m always concerned about the health of the children when the neighbors spray. I don’t need to worry about that on my farm. I mean, with raising children on a farm, it’s just the way it should be on an organic farm. It just fits.
TM: So do all the nine children, have they all milked and…?
EM: The youngest children… My oldest son is working off the farm now; he’s taking care of things while I’m gone at this time. But the oldest children have all helped milk. The younger children, my two daughters are eight and ten, they’re taking care of the baby calves right now. They love that. If we don’t have calves for a while, they’re always asking, “So when are we going to have baby calves again?” so they can start feeding these calves. It’s all part of the livestock; it’s part of their responsibilities on the farm. I think it teaches children responsibility. So that’s one of the, it just fits in with our lifestyle. I would say so, yes.
TM: Mark, how about you? Do you have a bunch of kids too?
MM: We have five children. Our oldest has his own dairy farm now, and he is in the process of transitioning his farm to organic. We bought a farm for our second son. The oldest son is renting. He could have had a chance at this other farm but it’s quite a distance from his wife’s parents, so he was able to rent this farm across the road from his wife’s parents. So he’s not at home. But we are currently, yeah, our children have all helped. Our youngest son is thirteen. And we have three boys and two girls, and they have all helped. The one daughter is teaching school right now, but the other daughter is helping Mom milk the cows while we’re here today.
But yeah, it definitely fits the system, just like Ernest said. With children being outside, we don’t have to worry about them getting into the chemicals. We don’t have to worry about them being in a field that was sprayed. And they are involved. They do their own little gardens and they have their own… Clifford, our youngest son, is really into chickens. We have this little incubator and he hatches out chickens every year, and he’s really into it. So everybody likes… At home there, we’re all excited about what we do.
TM: You know, it’s exciting to see that your children are going to be farming organically. I read this statistic, and I was telling Ernest about it, that one out of eight dairy farmers in the United States, both conventional and organic together, are either Amish or Mennonite. That’s exciting. And in your neighborhood in Ohio, do you have quite a density of your community farming organically?
MM: Let me say this first: Our communities in the United States are very strong—farming runs very strong in our blood. And I would say agrarian type farming is very attractive. Some think you can’t do it, this day and age anymore. But it is very possible. And the interest is growing. But as far as organic amongst the Mennonites, which is what we are, I would say we’re probably at about less than 5 percent. But—
TM: Less than 5 percent organic.
MM: Yes. But in our community we have around 300 families, and roughly 90 percent of them are on farms. And of those farms, 90 percent of them, I would say, are dairy. That number kept true for a number of years and I would say it’s still there.
EM: To add to that, while they’re not certified organic, there’s quite a movement at this time to move towards more of a biological type farming, that you still might use chemicals, but it’s more a trend away from GMOs and more towards low chemical usage and considering what the effects are of chemicals and so on, on your soils and farms.
TM: Do you think that perhaps… The current pay price for organic milk right now is pretty high. How would you recommend that we maybe leverage that high pay price today and try and convert more of your neighbors? Would that be an incentive or not?
EM: I think it’ll be an incentive, partly… Like you said, we don’t always look at pay price as the primary thing but, as we were saying earlier, farming is very strong in our community. And to continue that, conventional agriculture is not very profitable right now. And I think organics definitely has a place. And I see my nephews, who are conventional farmers at this time, they’re asking me, “So what’s your milk price right now?” And they do realize that they’ve been looking at us doing this since 2002, and the steady pay price, the upward trend, you don’t have these extremely high pay prices and then dropping down to half, as has happened in the conventional milk price in the last five, six months.
TM: You know, just to stay on the economics for a few minutes, when I was in Ohio I heard some figure that, maybe it was from you, that an acre of land in your region is something like $14,000.
EM: If it’s prime land with a decent set of buildings, yes, you’re looking at close to $14,000 an acre. Now you can buy some land that’s not quite as nice but you need to make a lot of improvements on for less than $10,000, but it’s getting to be a thing of the past, I’m afraid.
TM: How is it that you are able to help your children go organic and help them buy land?
MM: Well, I guess pay price definitely plays a part. But something that really runs strong in our communities too, our society, would be that if things get tough, you just tighten your belt, you watch what you spend. We intend—it’s not our choice, we’d rather not put in the long hours, but sometimes you just have to work more hours and work harder to be able to generate enough money to make those payments. And it’s not an easy thing, but we’re not looking for an easy life. We want a good life. So it is possible.
TM: How does succession work in the Mennonite world?
MM: Yeah, we hear stories of children not wanting the farm because all they can think of is, or all they remember of the farm is hard work and long hours. But that is not really the… It is the case in some families. Some people are just cut out to be farmers more than others. And there are some in our community that would like to farm and they can’t—their dad might not be able to help them out. And if I’d have fifteen children, I don’t think I would be able to. You know, we’d probably have to move to a cheaper area to do more.
But as far as the trend or the normal way of us, our communities doing this, would be for the dad to keep on generating income while he’s buying a farm for his oldest son, and he gets him started. And then the next son comes along, and the older son might take on his farm, and that would help the dad get started on the next farm. And you work your way through. And then by the time the youngest son comes along, the dad’s wore out so he hands it over to the youngest son, and that’s probably what he’ll live off of because he has to have something, you know.
Over the years you’re putting money into the farm. It’s not like you’re building up a lot of cash, but you’re paying for the farm and you’re helping your sons get started. So you’re not making money off of your sons, off those farms—you usually just pass it on or help them out some more if you can. And the youngest son comes along, and Dad doesn’t have a lot of cash accumulated yet, so the younger son will buy the farm from the dad, and therefore the dad has something to live off of—Dad and Mom, or the parents have something to live off of. It works really well. You just can’t be greedy. Greed does not really play a part in this. If you do, you lose anyways, if you’re greedy.
TM: How about your parents? Do they often stay helping in the farm, live nearby? How does that work?
MM: Sometimes. My parents moved off of the farm, and my dad had a little business there. He has a little harness shop, and then they also have a greenhouse. They are no longer doing the greenhouse as much—they do a little bit for themselves, but they were doing flowers and vegetable plants, and so on. But they are now, Dad’s 79 years old and Mom will be 79 in September, so they…
They didn’t help as much, but some families, if they’re younger, you know, it all depends how old the parents are by the time the youngest child or maybe son-in-law might take on the farm. It all depends on their age or if they have other interests. You know, they might have another small business that they’re operating also and move into that and just, you know… But they still help out, you know. Well, we all help each other out. Well, if there’s a need, we all get together and do what needs to be done.
TM: You know, when I meet farmers and I always ask them what hobbies they have, so many of them, their hobby is also farming. I just wondered, do you two come from a big family?
MM: Yeah, well there was five boys and four girls. And we do, yeah, we’re all involved in agriculture, every one of us, my sisters and brothers. So most of them are doing dairy. But as far as hobbies, we definitely have hobbies. I like to fish, I like nature, I like biking, hiking—you know, that type of stuff. I’ve always liked nature, ever since I was a little boy. But, you know, I got so many hobbies, I don’t think I would be able to do them all.
EM: My hobby is to help promote organic agriculture. I think it’s great. That’s one of my hobbies, is to read about organic agriculture, read old farming books. Reading is one of my hobbies. Farming is, I guess, a lifestyle and a hobby.
TM: And you know, I’ve always seen different farming communities do things together like help with barns and, you know. Do you have a community like that, where—
EM: We do, yes. If a catastrophe happens, barn fires, or whatever, the whole community pitches in. And if livestock needs to be taken care of, they get divided out to other farms, or on a farm that may not have…a farm that’s currently kind of between families or something, where there might be empty barns or whatever, where the livestock’s moved to. But as far as rebuilding barns or whatever, flooding, fires, whatever, we get together, definitely.
We also like to do outside community. My daughter just returned home from Colorado on a mission trip out there for a week, doing work out there, so…yes.
TM: And you know, is it conventional and organic that get together?
EM: Absolutely, yes.
TM: So, you know, we often hear stories about conventional farmers disparaging organic. Is that something that also happens [inaudible]?
EM: It does happen some, not as much as it used to. But I have a lot of conventional friends, and you know, we kid around and talk about both systems. But it’s done in fun. But it’s not as disparaging as it used to be, I would say.
TM: I guess you must have been seen as some kind of oddball, huh?
EM: Yes, we were, we were. It’s more accepted now. And one thing that does help, here a couple months ago when the conventional pay price was very high, they were ribbing us, “Hey, we’re almost up where you were at.” But the last couple weeks now, they keep asking, “So is your milk price still steady?” and I’m saying, “It sure is—it’s staying right where it was before.” You know, we don’t have those extreme peaks where milk price goes up very high, but it’s always, it hangs in there. And it’s great being able to build on that nice steady pay price and knowing what you’re be receiving the next month, knowing that you won’t be, your milk price won’t be cut in half in a six-month time.
TM: You know, Ernest, I really am very taken by the fact that one of your hobbies is promoting organic. What have you seen that works as far as messaging out, both to your community or to the public?
EM: Well, it all starts on your own farm. You’ve got to be able to maintain your farm, and you’ve got to have healthy livestock, healthy crops. Your neighbors, as they’re driving down the road, they’re looking at your farm. They’re noticing things. And if things are not kept up to the level of what it should be, of what your neighbors consider a successful farm, they’re going to notice that. So it starts on your own farm.
And from there on out, I like to do farming seminars or whatever. We just got through, Mark and I, along with a group of others, at a farming conference, the first organic farming conference in the state of Ohio. Well, basically that’s just farming. There are other organic conferences but this one was the first directed mainly towards production agriculture. And we ended up with about 500 people there, and I think it’s great.
TM: I would like to ask both of you, can you give me a comment on what you think the future of organic is, from where you are today?
MM: Well, I had my dad ask me one time—my dad was not at all organic minded when we switched. And after a while, like Ernest said, you had to do, to be able to show. You know, it doesn’t help to talk about it and not… You’ve got to practice what you preach, or that type of thing. The Bible talks about, from a Christian viewpoint, you know, we’re supposed to let our light shine. And if you notice, light does not have any sound—it’s there to be seen. So for us to be able to really drive a point home, we have to be able to prove that it works and that it’s something that is stable.
What I was going to say, my dad asked me, “What would you do—okay, you’re organic and you’re saying it’s sustainable and all that, it’s something that’ll work. What would you guys do…” He said, “You have a good market. Okay, if the economy would go, it would flip completely upside-down, and you can’t, you don’t have a market for your organic products anymore, what would you do then?” I told him, if that were to happen, nobody would be farming conventional anymore. They’d all be organic because they wouldn’t have money to buy chemicals. You’d go back to, you’d kind of go full-circle, come back to the way it used to be.
The people are becoming as, in general, across the whole country, are becoming more concerned about what they’re eating. And it’s not just the rich people that are buying this food. You can buy organic milk cheaper per gallon than you can buy a soft drink per gallon. And if people would learn to…as time’s going on, they are learning to make better choices in food, and therefore they can afford to buy better food. And I feel the market will stay strong.
TM: How about you, Ernest? What do you think?
EM: It’s a big question. I’d make a better historian than a prophet. But I think organics is here to stay, and it’s going to be a big part of the future. As people become more aware of what they put into their bodies is affecting their health, their long-term health, organics is just going to continue to grow and be a part of our future. I think there’s a lot of our health problems today come from conventional food or so-called food that’s not real food. And organics definitely is going to be a big part of the future. It’s going to be an exciting part of the future. I’m excited about it. I think it’s great.
TM: Thank you, Ernest and Mark, for being our guests today. It’s so fun to hear about not just the joys of farming but the benefits when you become an organic farmer. See you next week!
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