Organics and local food reign at OEFFA conference

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GRANVILLE, Ohio — When they first began farming, the thought of giving up pesticides and herbicides didn’t seem practical to Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens of Penn Yan, N.Y.

The message was clear: Those things were necessary ingredients to farm successfully. But sometime around 1993, they challenged that notion as they turned to organics. Today, they’re successfully farming 1,400 acres of corn, soybeans and small grains without the host of chemicals common on conventional farms, and they also raise organic cattle, swine and poultry.

Their neighbors were critical at first, said Klaas Martens, who spoke with his wife Feb. 19, the first day of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference in Granville. Now, most of the farms on their road are organic.

“We truly believe that we were like many conventional farmers, using the chemical fertilizers and pesticides simply because we saw no other alternatives, but hating what it might be doing to us, our family, our land and our environment,” said Mary Howell. “We farmed traditionally because we had been told so often that it was the only way to survive in agriculture today.”
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New venture

The Martens opened their own organic grain business in 1996, known as Lakeview Organic Grain. It has expanded significantly, now supplying more than 300 organic farmers in central New York, and is the state’s only organic feed mill and organic seed operation.

It’s been a learning process, the two explained, one that organic farmers are willing to share. Even though markets are competitive, Klaas said organic farmers help each other out, which, in turn, helps their markets.

“Organic farmers are willing to share,” he said. “When we learn something, it’s good news and we’re willing to tell everybody about it.”

Advantages

Both spoke about the improved sense of community and neighborhoods they’ve been able to restore as a result of organic farming. They’ve seen a shift from early organic farmers who had to fight to define their work, and its potential for success, to the new organic farmers who just see it as something normal.

Klaas still has many conventional farmers in his region, and wishes them the best in their own pursuits.

“We try very hard not to criticize our neighbors that are farming conventionally for what they’re doing,” he said. “I don’t have any problem criticizing the practices or the companies they buy (things) from.”

Mary-Howell Martens said organic farming is a good example of sustainable farming, because of all the advantages it provides.

“In order to be sustainable, it has to be fun and profitable,” she said. “Organic farming has offered us both.”

Attendees

The two-day OEFFA event was sold out, with 1,000 in attendance. Workshops and feature speakers were held both days.

Leslie Dybiec of Upper Arlington spent part of the day Feb. 19 in the exhibit hall stocking up on books — some of which she said are tough to find other places. She sees the conference as a fun place to learn, grow and “be with people of like mind.”

Randy Moore and his wife, Pamela, came from Webb Valley Farm — a multi-generation grass-based farm in Wilmington, Ohio. They raise grass-fed beef, lamb, pastured pork, chickens and pastured brown eggs.

Moore said he learns better from hands-on, visual experiences, but said he still was learning new perspectives and methods from interacting with speakers and other growers.

It was the 32nd annual OEFFA conference and the second time for a sellout. Participants came from all over Ohio, but a show of hands revealed they also came from Texas, Idaho, Pennsylvania, New York and other states.

“We have been amazed at the response to the conference,” said Executive Director Carol Goland, in a statement. “The event has grown each year, which is a sign of the growing local and organic food movement here in Ohio.”

Educator and nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow gave the keynote address Feb. 20. She is considered a pioneer in the organics and local foods movement. She is author of The Organic Life; The Feeding Web; and Chicken Little, Tomato Sauce and Agriculture: Who Will Produce Tomorrow’s Food?

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