BELOIT, Ohio – Pallets are stacked high with colorful paper bags, each with a stripe of red, yellow, blue or green.
The bags declare ‘Birds Luv ‘Em,’ referring to the mixture of grains and seeds inside. The finch and cardinal on each mark the brand’s seal of approval.
To the side, three young men joke and sweat as bags are filled, ingredient tags are sewn on, and bags methodically heaved onto the top of another pallet.
It’s 25 years of outside-the-box thinking and progress at work.
Finding a target. Back in 1978, Roger Martig and his wife, Alice, made trips to town from their Beloit-area dairy farm with a dogged mission: to buy bags and bags of birdseed.
Back at home, Roger would sift and separate to determine how much of each ingredient was in each brand and blend.
It wasn’t so much a hobby as it was research.
Outside his own home, he would fill feeders and watch which seed each bird chose and which they picked over. Cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, woodpeckers and sparrows visited.
Inspections led Martig to one conclusion: The perfect bird feed is the sunflower seed.
Lucky for him – he had thousands of pounds of the seed in a bin nearby – and had found the perfect market for his commodity.
The ‘Birds Luv ‘Em’ brand of birdseed was born.
One bad spring. The venture started in 1978 when a salesman stopped at the farm on state Route 534 in western Mahoning County.
It was a cold and wet spring, Martig recalls, and the salesman touted the benefits of sunflowers – the crop could be planted later than corn, and with the same planter.
All the family’s corn wasn’t in early enough, and with the equipment and land ready to go, they decided to give the new crop a shot.
At the end of the season, Martig felt he had a hard time getting rid of the seeds.
He began to truck them to a bird seed manufacturer in Worthington, Ohio, to sell wholesale. Those trips gave him a chance to see that company’s facilities and led him to one conclusion: “Heck, I could do that,” he said.
By 1984, the family had built its first packaging facility, which is still in operation today.
“Our facilities are real plain and simple,” Martig said, explaining the operation uses a one-ton mixer, bagger with digital scale, manual labor and a sewing machine to process each bag.
Three full-time employees keep the shop running, and more are added in winter and during busy times.
‘A godsend.’ In good years the facility can hardly keep up.
“If there’s not snow, we can easily drop a third of our business. When everybody else is dreading it, we’re jumping up and down for snow,” said Roger’s son, John, general manager of the farm.
“In January and February, all they did was make birdseed for two straight months,” Roger Martig said. “That’s the way it is supposed to be.”
Since that first year, the market for Martig’s Birds Luv ‘Em brand of birdseed has grown and the product has sold itself by word of mouth.
“We’re able to get rid of all we grow, and some of the corn and wheat we raise each year. It’s been a godsend for our farm and family,” Roger Martig said.
The family includes Roger and his wife, Alice; daughter Rhonda, who’s not involved in the farm; and sons Earl, Sam, Marvin and John.
Sam serves as farm mechanic. Marvin oversees crop production, and Earl is herdsman.
The operation raises less than 2 percent of the sunflowers sold each year, claiming only 400 acres of the 4,000 acres farmed by the family.
Other seeds used in the blends, including millet, sorghum, nyjer thistle, safflower and other grains, are purchased through a broker.
Some farmers in southern Ohio grow milo specifically for use in Martig’s birdseed. Other milo is shipped from farms in southern Indiana; millet comes from Colorado.
Crop basics. The family plants the sunflower crop using their corn planter and 30-inch row spacing. Seeds are spread at 25,000-26,000 seeds per acre with yield targets at one ton per acre.
The flowers fall into the farm’s crop rotation after corn.
“You can’t plant sunflowers back to back. You’ll get disease problems eventually,” said Marvin Martig, who only remembers spraying for pests once since production started.
“They’re tough, though. They’ll come up in the cold.”
Not many herbicides are labeled for use on sunflowers, posing another challenge. Once the crop is in, ground is cultivated for weed control.
Another added benefit is that in its short growing season, the crop “doesn’t take near as much fertilizer as corn,” Marvin Martig said.
Overall, the crop adds to the profits and efficiency of the farm.
“We can make money with [sunflowers] and they spread out our planting season, spread out the work a little,” Roger Martig said.
“They look pretty in the field, but then we can put them in a bag and sell ’em,” he said.
Looking pretty. Throughout the summer, passers-by – those who’ve grown up near the farm as well as out-of-towners – stop cars along roadsides to admire the sunflowers’ beauty and novelty. Some bring children to see the acres of flowers turned toward the sun. Some snap photographs.
Come mid to late October, though, those beauties are harvested, leaving fields full of stalks and fodder.
At the base of the seven Harvestores that dominate on the skyline, semi loads of the harvested seeds pull up the farm driveway to the dump pit.
From there, the seeds are cleaned, treated and diverted into bins.
When it’s time to mix another batch of feed – the family manufactures only after orders are placed – seeds are transferred to the main building for mixing via an air-blown underground pipe.
‘Several thousand tons’ was the closest estimate John Martig could give to the amount of sunflower seeds processed and bagged each year.
In the mix. Martigs have four custom backyard birdseed mixes.
The facility also manufactures and bags pigeon feed, scratch feed and horse oats, both with their own label and those of other companies. They also clean and bag shelled corn.
“Most everything we do revolves around the backyard feeder,” Roger Martig said.
“Our blends are mostly formulated for birds, not people.
“Most others you buy have millet and a handful of sunflowers. That’s not feed for the type of wild birds we have around here,” Martig explained.
The mixes are wholesaled to retailers throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, including “a lot of business” in the Cleveland and Pittsburgh markets.
Distributors help move more than 50 tons a week during the winter, according to John Martig, who describes the birdseed business as more competitive than people think.
“It’s the most risky crop [we raise] by far, about two or three times more than corn or beans,” John Martig said.
“But we still think we can make more money this way than with soybeans,” Marvin Martig said.
“Our biggest goal is to make a good living,” John Martig said. “We’d like to grow in the bird seed business and milk a few more cows. We’ve got to stay competitive.”
With the cows. The birdseed operation coexists alongside the family’s 600-cow Holstein dairy, though the men all agree both enterprises could function “very well” on their own.
All grain is pooled and used as needed by either venture. The ‘good stuff’ from the farm’s corn acreage goes into birdseed mixes, and everything else goes into the cow herd.
Seed cleanings and screenings – byproducts nearly useless otherwise – are reground and fed to the farm’s milkers.
According to Roger Martig, the family takes the precaution of regrinding to be sure no seed is still viable to eliminate the surprise of weeds or exotic plants coming up in pastures.
Looking back. When the operation started, the farm could accept only one semi load of seeds at a time and relied on gravity boxes to store and move their cache.
Today, the facility accommodates multiple loads of each ingredient to keep up with demand.
“We’ve been at this since 1984. Some days I can’t believe it myself,” Roger Martig said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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