By Tom Parker
When Jason Schmidt returned to his family farm to take over from his parents, he was experienced in sustainable and regenerative agricultural systems from South Africa to Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas, and filled with an unwavering optimism that the knowledge and ideas he espoused would transform their conventional dairy operation to an economically and ecologically successful organic operation. He was long on ideals and short on doubts, but now, seven years later, the two have been reversed. His wife, Carol, is convinced that the farm isn’t sustainable from a practical perspective, and Schmidt questions the sustainability of working brutally long hours just to pay the bills. “My idealism,” he said, “met reality.”
“It feels like I’m beating my head against the wall sometimes,” he said. “Daily, I find myself questioning the idealism that brought me back to the farm and redefining my farming values.”
Not all of his farming values are in need of redefinition, however. At the core of his beliefs is the idea that the best way to honor the expansion of the Great Plains is to create an environmentally friendly system of food production modeled on natural ecosystems. Last year he added a solar array, the first step toward a long-term goal of powering his farm with 100 percent renewable energy. “Now,” he said, “I’m waiting for a solar-powered tractor.”
Schmidt’s story was a sobering analysis of what happens when a philosophical quest for environmental stewardship meets the current reality of agriculture in Kansas, and as such was a fitting introduction to the Kansas Farmers Union annual convention held Dec. 1-2 in Emporia. The convention theme, “Bridges,” dealt with similarities between physical bridges spanning rivers and ravines and the ways people find solutions to unexpected challenges. As guest speaker Sarah Green said during the opening ceremony, “We don’t always get to pick the bridges we have to cross, and sometimes we don’t know what we’ll see when we get to the other side. Sometimes we have to build bridges within ourselves.”
For Schmidt, those bridges included trying to find accord with every aspect of the farm operation, from its impact on the environment both locally and globally, the logistical hurdles of small-scale organic farming, practical shortcomings on the use of cover crops and no-till crop production, and ethical concerns over herbicide use. He even found himself questioning the established narrative of Manifest Destiny and his family’s role in the expulsion of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kansa, Osage, Pawnee and other Native American tribes during the settling of the Great Plains.
His great-great-grandparents emigrated from southern Russia to the Kansas plains in late 1874, part of the mass migration of Mennonites seeking religious freedom. They settled on land two miles north of Schmidt’s current farm in rural Newton. The grass was up to their knees, his great-grandfather, Henry, wrote, and when his father took an old spade and started digging in a low-lying area he struck water after only a few feet. They built a house and cleared a swath around it for a fire break and broke the soil with a yoke of oxen. Their first crop was corn and watermelons.
When his great-grandparents married in 1892 they purchased Schmidt’s current farm. A succession of generations transitioned the farm from horse-drawn plows to tractors, introduced dairy cows and hogs, and eventually upgraded the farm to a Holstein Grade A dairy. The original house where they raised 11 children and several barns are still in use today.
Their saga was as distinctly American as the land itself, woven into the fabric of westward expansion that many believed to be divinely preordained. But on closer inspection the threads began to unravel.
“It’s easy to romanticize this long family tradition, and maybe rightly so,” Schmidt said. “But looking with objective eyes, I think it is important to acknowledge the violence upon the land and Native American tribes that occurred in the ‘settling’ of the Great Plains.”
Though his pacifist Mennonite ancestors weren’t involved in direct action against native tribes, they were nevertheless beneficiaries of the genocide, he said. They were, however, active participants in another form of genocide that took place during the same period, that of the ecosystem, as the native prairies were broken and plowed under. Human-induced natural disasters such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the ever-expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by agricultural runoff, and the threat of catastrophic climate change have not only tempered his emotional connection to the land but called into question his very vocation. The question he asks himself is starkly simple: “Can I farm and still be a conservationist?”
The environmental activist and farmer Wendell Barry attempted to answer that very question, and he did so in such a way as to place the farmer at the root of the problem—or the solution. “Farmers either fit their farming to their farms, conform to the laws of nature, and keep the natural powers and services intact – or they do not,” he said. “If they do not, then they increase the ecological deficit that is being charged to the future.”
Agriculture has such enormous impacts on global ecosystems and the environment, some of them severe, Schmidt said. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture in the U.S. accounts for nine percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Other impacts are implied but less understood, such as the overuse of animal antibiotics that has led to increased resistance to antibiotics, and the uncertainty over the long-term health and ecological effects of chemical pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional farming, he said.
“While I am a strong proponent of the scientific process and respecting peer-reviewed research, too often as public research dollars dwindle, I fear industry-funded research is driving what scientific questions are asked,” Schmidt said. “There is a diminished focus on research that investigates how to reduce agriculture inputs and improve environmental and economic sustainability on farms. Organic farming isn’t necessarily a panacea, and is too often less productive, but organic production is one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture and I believe it has much higher potential for sustainability on small family farms.”
His own attempt at transitioning the farm into an organic operation have largely failed. Part of the problem is logistic, he said.
“While organic markets continue to expand in the U.S, Kansas lags behind in organic food production,” he said. “As far as I am aware, there is not a single certified organic dairy farm in Kansas.”
An enormous amount of effort is needed to develop the infrastructure to produce organic milk in the state, he learned from conversations with Amish dairies. The only other option would be to direct market his milk, but even that requires large capital expenses, not to mention the extra labor involved. “The tripling of my current job description from just dairy farmer to farmer, processor and marketer feels overwhelming,” he said.
Until a clearer path emerges for organics, Schmidt said he intends to continue to market and produce milk conventionally. He has also gained more appreciation for conventional agricultural practices, at least of the progressive variety.
After adopting no-till systems that incorporate cover crops and grazing, he has seen increased biological activity and organic matter in the soil, he said. On the other hand, he has found it difficult (but not impossible) when using no-till crop production to raise monoculture crops without the use of herbicides. While he practices organic farming on his own land, he reverts to conventional methods on rented ground, mainly to satisfy the landlords. Comparing the results of the two methods have brought him to the conclusion that though the soil on his property is healthier and has less runoff, his rented farm ground is more profitable.
“What is clear to me is the lack of tradeoffs that emerge by getting livestock out of confined situations and back out onto the land whenever possible,” he said. Both soil and animals are healthier when cattle are moved regularly to new pastures, he said, but it’s less productive and requires logistical challenges. Feedlots have too many drawbacks, including high greenhouse gas emissions, excessive nutrient runoff, animal welfare concerns, inappropriate use of antibiotics and heavy reliance on fossil fuels. The solution he settled on falls somewhere in the middle: feed bunks.
“This is perhaps my biggest moral dilemma with my farm—my inability to increase the grazing component of my milk cows’ diet,” he said. “The reasons are simple: I have the infrastructure for feed bunk feeding, I do not own enough contiguous grazing ground around the dairy, feed is currently relatively cheap, and all variables can be controlled to maximize production and meet all the animals’ nutritional needs.”
Though he makes incremental improvements in grazing each year, he finds it difficult to scale up, he said.
So, after all of the introspection and questioning, where does Schmidt find himself? Cautiously optimistic.
The structure of dairies provides certain benefits that other forms of agricultural production don’t share, he said. The technology for milking cows 50 cows or 10,000 cows is basically the same, for instance, and marketing milk is ready income. And he believes small-scale farms can still be viable if they diversify and find value-added markets.
“In my utopian dream, a landscape full of small-scale operators is a much healthier community than a landscape with one or two giant operations that employ a whole city of underpaid workers,” he said. “Maybe this is a long-past dream since I live in a county that used to support possibly hundreds of dairies and now has only three.
“Carol and I are constantly dreaming and scheming. But I love this farm and I feel fortunate to do what I do. We will see where the future leads.”
The convention was sponsored by Midwest Regional Agency, Farmers Union Insurance and the Frontier Farm Credit. Kansas Farmers Union is the state’s oldest active general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities.