Ben Martin stumbled into farming and couldn’t be happier.
“I worked a landscape job outside weed whipping,” the 28-year-old Martin says about a job during college that revealed his love of the outdoors. “I really liked working outside, but I didn’t like weed whipping.”
Now Martin, with his fiancée, Sarah Luetzow, owns Soil Friends Farm & Market in Galesburg, a 22-acre vegetable farm with a farm market and community-supported agriculture (CSA) that focuses on healthy soil to produce nutrient-dense food.
As Martin describes his accidental journey toward a career in agriculture, he juggles helping customers and weighing vegetables and appears totally in his element. In the nearby pasture, 30 goats bleat and frolic.
Martin’s landscape job led him to plant a vegetable garden, he says, and then other indicators continued pointing him toward farm life. A big factor: He met an Amish farmer selling baked goods.
“He took me and introduced me to the growers throughout Michigan and Indiana,” Martin says. “From there I’ve been as far as Kentucky to meet Amish farmers and learn how they do it.”
Dreaming of produce
Martin, who grew up in Comstock Township, had enrolled at Western Michigan University as a business major, but, while in a business class one day, he couldn’t stay focused.
“They were talking about something and coffee, and I was dreaming about produce,” he says, laughing.
He switched his major to food and consumer packaging. From there, Martin and Luetzow — who was his high school sweetheart — learned about the food system and what they saw as the problems with it. They both gravitated toward a natural approach to a healthy life, he says, and bought their farm in 2015, a year after Martin graduated from WMU. Although Soil
Friends is not certified as organic, its produce is free of pesticides and herbicides, Martin says.
“(It’s) my own ethics of what I want to feed my family and my kids,” he explains, noting the couple has four children. “The same refrigerator that I go shopping out of, my customers do (too) and we can all share that together.”
Martin chose to study under Amish instruction because he admired the way Amish farmers care for the land and focus on the nutritional content of food — not to mention the amazing smell and appearance of their food, he says. While learning from Amish farmers in three states and interning with an Amish field consultant, Martin studied biological activity in the soil
and how certain practices produce high-quality soil, which produces nutritious food.
“People think a tomato is a tomato is a tomato, and that’s so far from the truth,” Martin says.
The more nutritious the food, he says, the better tasting it is. Soil Friends focuses on nutrient-dense foods and utilizes the Brix system. Brix is the sum of the pounds of sucrose, fructose, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, hormones and other solids in 100 pounds of plant juice, according to the Bionutrient Food Association (BFA), which advocates for vital soils to nourish food and people.
“(With) food — just like wine — you can measure the amino acids, the sugars, the dissolved solids in the food,” Martin explains. “And there’s a tool you can use — a refractometer — and that tool in itself will show you that food from one piece of fruit to the other, grown on different farms, can be different.”
Making sure his farm’s vegetables are “happy,” he says, requires a high management level. At Soil Friends, they are in the fields every day. He says flavorful produce depends on factors like: What was the farmer’s attention to detail on that crop? How often did the vegetables get dry? How often did it get too cold? Did the farmer pick at peak maturity?
“Our stuff is peak,” Martin says. “It is picked when it’s ready. Fresh, red strawberries. Fresh, red tomatoes. Fully ripened. So it’s not only growing it right, it’s harvesting at the right time too.”
Martin’s best reviewers are children because “they’re honest,” he says. If a cantaloupe doesn’t taste good, he says, they’ll be the first to let someone know — and vice versa if they like it.
“That’s what we’ve been able to see with our kids,” Martin says. “They’re stealing peppers off the counter while we’re cooking dinner to eat a raw pepper.”
A real family farm
When Martin and Luetzow started Soil Friends in 2015, they concentrated on creating a wholesale commercial farm. The excitement of the two oldest of their four children about the farm and their desire to bring families there inspired them to open a farm market.
“That’s our goal — to have a family farm and a family destination spot where a family can come and enjoy the farm, see the goats, take a peek at where their food was grown, eat some good food, (and) get some good value-added produce and products to take home,” Martin says.
Open May through December, but only on weekends in November, Soil Friends’ market serves seasonal, hot prepared foods, such as fried green tomatoes and asparagus, from a food trailer. Throughout the year the market offers special events and foods, such as a pancake breakfast, BLTs and hard cider, kids’ music around a campfire, s’mores and ice cream, and
Sam’s Superslime — Interactive Fun for Children. One Saturday per month Down Dog Yoga Center, of Kalamazoo, holds goat yoga at the farm. It’s so popular that customers must register in advance.
“You go out into a pasture where there’s grass growing and there’s goats grazing, and you do yoga right along in there,” Martin says.
Public response to Soil Friends has been positive, the owners say. Traffic to its farm stand, at 1701 N. 33rd St., never stops, Martin says, and outside of business hours he has to make sure to close the gate.
“Sometimes when I’m trying to get stuff done, people are pulling in and I’m heading out back,” he says, “and I’m kicking myself because someone forgot to close the gate.”
But Martin feels blessed by such enthusiastic reactions. “That’s a whole heck of a lot better than no one ever coming, you know?”