Not all farmers have to get big or get out. Some of us get weird.

Since taking over his father's dairy operation a decade ago, Jason Schmidt has built a niche market for artisan cheeses. Here he is pictured with Jersey Girl. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jason Schmidt is a fifth-generation Kansas farmer and the proprietor of Grazing Plains southeast of Newton.

“In America, the big get bigger and the small get out,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced to a crowd of dairy farmers a year ago.

This march toward “progress” has been the steady underlying theme of our country’s relationship with agriculture and land use.  From the “settling” of the west, to the destruction of the prairies, to the broad adoption of industrial models of producing food, farming looks nothing like the Jeffersonian agrarian vision of a democracy centered around the small farmer.

But this “progress” has failed society and the environment. Economic externalities such as social and ecological health have been thrown by the wayside in this race for highest yields, advanced technology and corporate profits.

My roots run deep in this farming culture. Over the past 145 years and five generations, my family has called this small central Kansas farm home. My family has never been the largest or most advanced farmers, but each generation did its best to keep up with the times. It is a great testament to sheer perseverance and hard work that from my great great-grandparents’ pioneering, subsistence farming lives in the 1870s to my parents’ Grade A dairy and commodity crops, this farm has stayed operational.

I, on the other hand, was not necessarily well suited to chase this “progress.” I was that kid who would rather spend my summers down by the creek catching frogs and minnows rather than learning my way around a diesel tractor engine. As a young adult, my Mennonite roots drew me towards social justice and international development work.

But along my journey as a young person, I began to realize this connection between environmental health and human health. Through mentorships with college professors and organic farmers, I gained a new perspective: Rather than the paradigm that views farming as being in conflict with nature, we actually need to realize that we are a part of nature and depend on a healthy ecosystem for our own well-being.

While a seemingly innocuous difference, this change forced me to consider asking not what can I get out of the land to be profitable, but how can I first be a steward of the land and the broader ecosystem I am a part of. And, for better or worse, I realized my connection to my Kansas farming roots was stronger than I realized.

So 10 years ago I pivoted, and my wife, parents and I made plans to return to my family’s farm.

Miriam Goertzen-Regier, Grazing Plains cheese maker, puts the finishing touches on a batch of dill Havarti cheese. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

We worked out a five-year transition for me take over the dairy operation, while my dad kept his cropland. And I began my quest to figure out a way that would allow me to farm with nature (currently, a pasture-based small dairy with diverse mixes of perennial pastures and annual cover crops looking toward the native prairies as my model), and also jumping out of the conventional expectations of getting big (developing niche markets and on-farm processing of artisan cheeses).

To Sonny Perdue, I say, “Get big or get weird!”

I humbly admit that I have no idea if my vision will be successful or is broadly adoptable. I have much to learn and improve in the areas of pasture management and successful no-till cropping methods.

But I do feel I am part of a growing revolution of farmers and consumers who realize the industrial model of food production is broken, and we desperately need to figure out how farming can be a part of the mitigation of climate change and also adapt to a warming climate. Farming with nature has so much potential to not only lower on-farm carbon use, but also for managing our cropland and pastures as a carbon sink rather than a carbon emitter.

I am excited to be on this farming journey to revolutionize the way we produce food that is no longer extractive and industrial but restorative and ecological. That is intentionally small and community oriented.

Jason Schmidt’s children, Greta and Ethan, beat the heat in a stock tank. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

So, join me as consumers and citizens in advancing this revolution. Know your farmers.  Support food grown ecological with your dollars (if you can) by purchasing grass-fed animal products, organically produced food and other ecologically labeled foods.

And insist that our politicians legislate for climate action. This revolution can’t happen soon enough!

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. For information, including how to submit your own commentary, click here.