Get Big – or Get Weird

Issue 2020, vol. 74

A young dairy farmer’s ongoing journey to advance toward ecological and economic sustainability – a story of what happens when a philosophical quest for environmental stewardship meets the current reality of agriculture in Kansas.

Fifteen years ago, when my wife Carol Longenecker and I first met, I warned her of this crazy idea I had of returning to my Kansas home to farm. She graciously agreed to see where it led us. Carol will gladly tell you she had no idea what she was in for. After a slow journey back to the farm, through living in Colorado, grad school in South Carolina and law school for Carol in Topeka, Kan., we finally moved back to south-central Kansas in 2011.

Fifteen year ago, my parents and I began talking about my future return to the farm. It started in the theoretical distant future and progressed to the stressful immediacy of making the transition happen. Dad and Mom had made a living on the Schmidt home place with a 50-cow Holstein dairy and crop ground. We worked out a five-year transition for me to take over the dairy operation and Dad continued his crop operation.

Today, I am heading in to my fifth year of full farm ownership, milking 70 mostly Jersey-cross cows on about 200-300 owned and rented acres. I also have a small sheep flock, and now a small creamery. Carol works as an attorney for the Kansas Appellate Defender’s Office, and we have two little ones, Greta, 6, and Ethan, 4. Now let me tell you about me journey from beginning farmer to cheese maker.

Why I came back to the farm

I was one of those farm kids who didn’t expect to return after I left for college. My classes at Hesston and Bethel Colleges drew me away from the farm, as I dreamed of a life and career overseas. But I continued to be pulled toward farming, whether it was coming home to farm during college summer breaks or gravitating towards agriculture projects after college in volunteer assignments with Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Voluntary Service. During my MVS years, followed by my graduate studies in South Carolina, I decided I wanted to farm. As a young person exposed to new ideas of farming methods, I got really excited to bring these new ideas back home to Kansas.

I returned to the farm full of optimism and idealism. My plan was to transition the dairy farm to an organic grazing dairy, using management intensive rotational grazing and developing direct markets for my milk. But 10 years later, my vision for my farm has taken me down unexpected twists and turns.

Every day, I find myself questioning the idealism that brought me back to the farm, and redefining my farming values. After 10 years of straddling both conventional and alternative farming practices, I have come to accept that there is no perfect way to farm. Let me explain some of the values that guided me back to the farm and how I have questioned these values.

A sense of place

When I decided I wanted to farm, I initially thought I was more interested in how I farmed then where I farmed. But I realized that (for better or worse) much of what was pulling me back to the farm was the desire to return home and carry on the family tradition, farming the land I came to love as a kid. I am the 4th generation on this farm. Bear with me for a quick history.

My great-great-grandparents emigrated from south Russia to the Kansas plains in the fall of 1874 as part of the mass migration of Mennonites moving to the United States in search of religious freedom and new farm ground. The Santa Fe Railroad had expanded as far south as Newton in 1870 and invited immigrants to settle the plains. My great-grandfather, Henry P. Schmidt, who was 6 when the family arrived from Russia, wrote about the tough first years on the plains:

“In the spring of 1875 most of the immigrants moved out to settle on the claims they had chosen during the winter. The grass out on the prairie was knee high. Here they started to build their homes among rattlesnakes and coyotes. The South Russian Mennonites, who came in 1874, settled in villages similar to those in the old country. Each village had a common grazing place for the livestock and for the care of which the settlers hired a herdsman. Getting good water was the first problem. Father got an old spade, went to a low place and dug a well. After digging only a few feet he struck water. The next thing was to put a fire guard around the house as a protection against prairie fires. A few furrows were plowed around the house, a little farther out another one, and then the grass between these two plowed strips was burned … The farming started with a yoke of oxen and a breaking plow. Father broke up a patch of ground and we planted some corn in the sod with a hoe. We also planted some watermelons. This was a small beginning.”

My great-great-grandparents settled on land two miles north of our current farm. When my Great-Grandpa and Great-Grandma Schmidt got married in 1892, they bought our current farm from my great-grandpa’s aunt and uncle. Here, Henry and Maria made their pioneer farming life, having 11 children in our current house and building barns that I continue to use to this day. My grandpa, Reinhold, was the youngest of the 11 and took over the farm after my grandma, Dorothy Unruh, and he were married in 1937. Grandpa and Grandma farmed with horses for one year before they switched to tractors. They bought dairy cows and raised hogs.

My parents, Ralph and Jeanne Schmidt, purchased the farm in the 1970s, upgrading to a Holstein Grade A dairy and expanding crop production. This is the era when I grew up helping with dairy chores after school and spending summers farming with Dad through my high school and college years.

Who was here first

It’s easy to romanticize this long family tradition, and maybe rightly so. But looking with objective eyes, it is important to acknowledge the violence done to the land and Native American tribes in the “settling” of the Great Plains.

In the early 19th century, eastern Native American tribes were forced west. Nearly 30 different tribes voluntarily or forcibly signed treaties that moved them to areas in Kansas Territory along with tribes such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kansa, Kiowa, Osage, Pawnee and Wichita who called what is now Kansas home. Treaties promised that tribes would not be moved from this territory that was initially deemed uninhabitable for white settler. But in 1854, Kansas Territory was opened for settlement. White homesteaders flooding the state after the Civil War forced most Native tribes out.

In retelling my family’s story in Kansas, it is hard to accept that our family’s settling in Kansas was directly tied to this forcible removal of native tribes. I think many of us inadvertently still buy into the socially and environmentally destructive concept of Manifest Destiny – that in the 19th century, white Americans were supposed to “settle” the West. My pacifist Mennonite ancestors did not take direct part in violently removing Native tribes, but they were the beneficiaries of this genocide. And they were active participants in an ecosystem genocide as they plowed under the native prairie. I think we are still learning of the consequences, after surviving human-induced natural disaster such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and in recent years seeing the ever-expanding “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the huge nutrient loads washing down the Mississippi River from agriculture runoff.

I feel I need to try to temper my emotional and personal connection to this land with an objectivity that calls my vocation into question. Can I farm and still be a conservationist? Farmer, writer and poet Wendell Berry says:

“The farmer lives and works in the meeting place of nature and the human economy, the place where the need for conservation is most obvious and most urgent. 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. 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. According to the EPA, agriculture in the United States accounts for 9% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. I came back to the farm with an intense desire to find a more environmentally friendly model for keeping the family farm alive into the future. Climate change is going to be the defining challenge for the future of agriculture.

Peace and justice

I believe those of us from the Mennonite community are well positioned to understand the intersection between the ecological health of our planet and the wellbeing of people. Our history as farmers, along with our ethics of peace and service, led me naturally to gravitate towards environmentalism. Mentors from my college years at Hesston and Bethel introduced me to the concept of expanding Mennonite values of peace and justice to all of creation. Lorna Harder at Hesston and Duane Friesen at Bethel introduced me to the prophets of environmentalism, including Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold. Then my experiences as a volunteer with MCC in South Africa and MVS in Colorado solidified my understanding that ecological health and human wellbeing are intertwined, especially for marginalized communities around the world. During these years of service in both South Africa and southern Colorado, I built relationships with organic farmers and grass-fed ranchers who were developing ecologically sustainable and regenerative farming practice, while also finding niche markets for their products.

Organic farming

It was in Colorado that I saw organic farming at its best – providing an alternative to industrial farming systems with which a growing sector of the population has health and environmental concerns. Selling organically certified products also provides a premium price for farmers. I had hopes of pursuing organic markets, but Kansas does not have much of an organic farming infrastructure, and not a single organic dairy, eliminating this potential market for my farm.

No-till and cover crops

Without access to organic markets, I have perhaps gained more appreciation for progressive conventional agriculture. In the past decades, progressive crop farmers have adopted no-till systems and incorporated cover crops which, in turn, has created healthier soils that capture and recycle nutrients, store carbon, and reduce runoff and herbicide and fertilizer usage. Precision agriculture using GPS technology minimizes excess fertilizer and pesticide use and maximizes efficiency. I find the complexity of no-till farming with cover crops exciting and endlessly interesting. I am no longer following a cookie-cutter farming recipe, but experimenting constantly with diverse cover crop mixes and different primary crops. Integrating grazing into no-till and cover cropping has been fun and economically successful.

My first farming love is managing grazing animals. I have always loved working with animals, and when I volunteered with grass-fed ranchers in Colorado with MVS, I found a farming system that worked for my temperament. Looking at Kansas, we live in a region that once was one of the largest, most productive grasslands in the world, where grazing herbivores and a diverse prairie ecosystem evolved together. Great herds of migrating animals ranged over the region, grazing down grasses and moving on, following the growing grasses and herded by predators. This stable ecosystem is the aspirational model for my farm and the source of my farm’s name “Grazing Plains Farm.” I seek to grow mixes of forages with combinations of grasses, forbs and legumes as modeled after the prairie, and I move my cows daily to fresh grass to allow grass to rest and regrow behind the cows. This concept is called managed rotational grazing, mimicking wild grazing animals. Grasses are healthier, with stronger root systems – and, more importantly with the current climate crisis, this way of livestock farming captures and stores large amounts of atmospheric carbon in the soils.

I continue to straddle both conventional dairy practices of feeding a mixed ration at the feed bunk while also grazing during the growing season. I aspire to be 100% grazing, but understand the limitations of our climate, with cold winters and frequent summer droughts. But as I look to the future, I hold out hope that a more grazing-based dairy is in my cards.

The future is cheese?

Looking to the future has been difficult for farmers, especially small dairy farmers, over the last six years. Due to a confluence of global economic structures, domestic over-production partially due to the rise of mega-dairies that are no longer as susceptible to low price cycles, and trade wars, milk prices have been depressed for a record number of years. Thus, profit margins have narrowed, favoring the largest producers and not encouraging younger generations to take over smaller farms. This trend has been going on for a long time, but has been exacerbated in the recent years. Even our own Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, recently told dairy farmers in Wisconsin to stop whining because “in America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”

So what to do? I decided to look back at the original dream that brought me back to the dairy: a grass-fed dairy that direct-marketed my milk. In the spring of 2019, we took a great leap of faith and launched a small cheese creamery. Carol and I knew something had to change – five years into barely scraping by and still not quite farming how I wanted, I was getting discouraged. It was clear that an alternative market for my cows’ milk was not going to naturally fall into my lap. I realized if I was going to keep milking cows, I was going to have to create my own market. My friend Miriam Goertzen-Regier, who shared an interest in cheese making, decided she was game to come along on this journey with me.

I knew it was insane trying to launch a cheese business on top of my over-worked and underpaid current job description as a dairy farmer and father. But against my better judgment we proceeded. In 2018, I commissioned a feasibility study exploring a 20- to 40-cow grass-based dairy and artisanal cheese creamery. The potential profitability was exciting. Now to get there…

Miriam spent the fall of 2018 experimenting with cheese making, and we began jumping through the endless hoops for a creamery start-up. Being risk-averse and cash-strapped, I chose to start very small, in our church kitchen. The state inspector, church community, dairy cooperative and family were all graciously flexible and creative in this initial launch.

We started with a small 30-gallon pasteurizer, making our first official batch of cheddar cheese curds in April 2019, and we have slowly diversified. I wanted a cheese that identified our story, and that’s when Mark Jantzen, Bethel professor of history, alerted Miriam to the Tilsit cheese that he suspects our German-Russian Mennonite ancestors developed in Prussia. With a little more research, Miriam discovered a recipe for Tilsit, and we have successfully launched perhaps the first production of Tilsit in the United States. Other cheeses we are making include feta, cheddar and Havarti.

Marketing is an evolving skill that I am still learning. Prairy Market in Newton and Mojo’s Coffee Bar on the Bethel College campus have been my most reliable outlets for the community to purchase my cheeses. In summer 2019, I sold cheeses at a Wichita farmers market. Slowly, very slowly, I am adding new outlets throughout the region. As of spring 2020, we have our own farm store. Making cheese in the church kitchen was great, but we quickly outgrew the space. We renovated the current milk barn to include an on-farm creamery and store. Again, being risk-averse and cash-strapped, I made this iteration very small, but it will allow us to grow the business slowly.

I had hoped to ramp up processing fast, to eliminate the need to sell commodity milk. But it is becoming apparent that I am playing a long game. There is not enough of me to run the dairy farm, manage the processing and do the marketing to build the business quickly. But I am still excited for the potential and can’t wait to see the farm’s future.

I am simultaneously preparing the cows and the land for this transition, while slowly building the creamery. With the cows, I am now specifically selecting for grazing genetics. With the land, I am slowly planting perennial pastures and gaining more confidence in allowing the cows to harvest more of their diet through grazing.

I’m not exactly sure of the takeaways are from my experience thus far. Because I am still in the middle of this story, it’s too soon to know whether I will be successful and too far along to speak only aspirationally. However, I want to revise Secretary Perdue’s comments about agriculture of “get big or get out.” I say, “Get big or get weird!” I see agriculture diverging in the United States between the large industry model that feeds the commodity markets, and a diverse group of small food producers that feed niche markets. While my utopian dream of a landscape dotted with small farms may be just that, there is an exciting revolution full of creative, highly intelligent and mostly young people coming back to the land and wanting to grow food for their communities. Commodity agriculture has traveled a long way, in becoming exceptionally efficient and high yielding. My wish would be that both groups would learn from each other. Small producers could use industrial models to increase productivity, while industrial ag could learn to stop overproducing a few commodities that are leading to unhealthy diets and environmental degradation. And we all must figure out this climate crisis we are bringing upon ourselves and future generations. Agriculture is a huge part of the problem, and can be a large part of the solution of climate change. And we need solutions, fast.

What can the non-farmers do? Invest in local food systems. Buy local farmers’ products (through farmers markets, and also online networks, such as Shop Kansas Farms on Facebook, that can help your find outlets for farm products in your area). Support organizations that are investing in the environment and sustainable farming practices, such as Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston, Kan., the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Rural Center.

For those who are landowners, support beginning farmers who want to come back to the land. One of the more important pieces that enabled me to come back to the farm was a retiring local farmer who gave me the opportunity to rent 80 acres from him. He could have rented his land for a higher price to an established farmer, but he chose to invest in a young person. These are the kind of decisions that strengthen a community.