I have long felt that one of the keys to breaking through the regulatory roadblocks to easily accessing nutrient-dense foods like raw dairy is for farmers to flood the market with products the regulators want to keep from us. For that to happen, though, there need to be enough farmers willing to make the commitment and take the risks.

Farming has been a dying profession for many years, though. How are would-be farmers to be attracted away from all the career options available to take up sustainable farming? One way is for role models to emerge who can set the kind of example that inspires others to want to do the same.

In this guest post, Rutgers University professor Joseph Heckman describes how Michael Schmidt, in one appearance at Rutgers, became such a role model.

Michael Schmidt and Joseph Heckman recently at Rutgers University. As many of today’s farmers approach retirement, one wonders about the next generation. At Rutgers University, where I teach several courses in agriculture, I have responsibility for providing meaningful learning experiences for future farmers.
My most popular course, Organic Crop Production, attracts a diversity of students ranging from biology to liberal arts majors. Very few students have an agricultural background.  Last semester, out of the 47 students in my class, 10 said they want to go into farming, and among those future farmers not one grew up on a farm.  Without preconceived notions about the ways of the farm, students are perhaps more open to alternative ways of farming, like organic.

When I teach Organic Crop Production, I cover the requisite subject areas of composting, soil fertility, crop rotation, and organic cultural practices for production of vegetables, fruits, grains, and forages.  Standards for organic certification and the USDA-NOP are also covered.

When organic farming pioneer Albert Howard wrote that “Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock,” he knew that animals were indispensable to organic farming.  Since there is no comparable course offering in organic livestock production at my institution, I also include animal agriculture with a special emphasis on pastured livestock production.
Other lecture material introduces students to homeopathy, traditional food systems, and the history, philosophy, and sociology of organic farming.  I also introduce students to great writers and their influences on alternative agriculture.  Classical writings include selections from Eve Balfour, Albert Howard, Walter Northbourne, Weston Price, Wilhelm Reich, Jerome Rodale, J. Russell Smith, and contemporary writers include but not limited to, Wendell Berry, Sally Fallon Morell, Michael Pollan, and Joel Salatin.

Under traditional organic farming, a great diversity of subjects are open for learning and discussion.  Whenever possible I include field trips to working organic livestock and CSA vegetable farms, and I invite guest lectures to cover areas beyond my expertise. 

For example, last November I took advantage of the opportunity to invite Michael Schmidt to give a lecture on Biodynamic Farming.  This was right after he was a speaker at the Weston A. Price Foundation’s Wise Traditions Conference. 

Hosting Michael Schmidt was a most memorable experience because the student response was so overwhelmingly positive.  Michael began his lecture by providing an overview of Biodynamic Farming.  He also talked about his raw milk cow share model.  This was followed by a showing of the documentary Milk War, which relates a lone farmer’s struggle to win approval for raw milk in Canada, and for food rights and human rights in general. 

At the end of the film, students thundered with applause.  Michael answered questions and lead a discussion.  Comments from students included, “Before I listened to him I never thought I would even contemplate raw milk. After listening to Mr. Schmidt, I felt very comfortable with the idea”. And “Best Talk EVER!  It was like having a celebrity in class.  He was so smart and well-spoken and very inspiring.  I felt energized when we left.  I would love to visit and maybe intern on his farm.”

The most exciting organic trend is teaching young people about the emerging economic opportunities in farming.  Not teaching commodity farming, where one must “get big or get out,” but artisanal farming.  It is here where community supported agriculture, cow shares, and other direct farm-to-people relationships have opened up new business opportunities.  It is being spurred on by human hunger for farm fresh foods of exceptional quality.

September headlines in The New Jersey Farmer called on State Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher to “halt dairy exodus from state”.  The report on raw milk in Vermont illustrates the significant economic opportunity that awaits young farmers, where public policy allows it.  And now New Jersey legislation, that would establish a raw milk permit program, has potential to open up new opportunities for young dairy farmers in the Garden State.  ?