He says, “I grew up on a direct market, Christmas tree and vegetable farm in Kentucky. My family traveled extensively in the U.S. when I was a child, visiting nearly every state, and that gave me appreciation for Earth. We would always pick up trash, eat from the garden, turn off the lights and little things like that which started to build my environmental awareness.”
Today, Jake is a regional pool manager for Organic Valley, where he travels around the south-central region visiting the cooperative’s farmer-members and helping them navigate the sometimes-complex world of organic farming.
In this episode, Jake talks to us about his childhood spent outdoors, his personal love of farming, his disillusionment with the geology “industry,” which led him to working with farmers. We also hear his passion for doing everything we can to mitigate climate change for the sake of our food and farming future.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Jake Schmitz of Organic Valley
August 3, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. I’m so excited and delighted today to be talking to Jake Schmitz from the wonderful state of Kentucky—and you’ll notice that as soon as he starts talking. Jake, what a versatile guy! Even though his degree is in geology and climatology, he’s spent most of life working with farmers, even converting conventional farmers to organic. He’s going to say a lot about how devoted he is to climate and how it also has a lot to do with his love of farming.
Jake, so delighted to have you here today, and welcome. I’m so curious: here you have a degree in climatology, but you were raised on a farm. What got you interested in the climate and all those things around the earth?
JAKE SCHMITZ: Well, I was lucky to grow up in Kentucky in a beautiful, natural environment, beautiful rolling hills, trees. And my mom and dad, they instilled in us to take care of what we had. And we would always have to walk up and down the streets and pick up trash. You know, even though we were in the country, a lot of country folk in Kentucky like to throw their garbage out the window. And so we would always start there, and it’d start making me think about things as a child.
And I remember taking a trip out to Seattle, Washington, once to visit my Uncle Dennis, and he was cutting six-pack rings with a scissors. And I was only about five, and I asked him what he was doing. He said that he was trying to save the marine life. And he showed me a picture of, it was a seagull, and it had a six-pack ring on its leg. And so all of a sudden I made this connection with the garbage that we have in our house to what goes on in the world.
TM: You know, what other kinds of things did you do when you were a kid growing up in Kentucky that really gave you this environmental awareness?
JS: So I was fortunate to grow up six miles away from Mammoth Cave National Park, the world’s longest cave. It’s close to 400 miles mapped already; a lot of scientists think it goes maybe 1,000 miles. And so we had great forests, wildlife. My farm, actually, whenever I got to college and took my first geology class, there was a chapter in there on Karst geology, and Karst is basically caves and sinkholes and that kind of thing. Well, the map that they showed was, right in the center of that map was my farm. So I lived in the textbook Karst topography.
And when I was a child, I would crawl into the sinkholes. There’d be big oak trees—my favorite sinkhole had a big oak tree that fell down to the bottom of it, and I would crawl down that big red oak trunk, down into that sinkhole. And at the edge of that sinkhole was a cave, and I could go back into the cave a little ways. But I was a free-range child—I was a young teenager, at the oldest, and I would be down there by myself, playing. And when the bell rang I had to come home and eat, but until then I would be in the forest or in the fields, just checking out the earth.
TM: What got you interested in climatology?
JS: Well, climatology came through the back door, in a way. In college I took a geology class and a meteorology class, and with very little effort aced both of them. And so I realized I’d better get into something like that to major in. So my meteorology was also coupled with climatology, so after, in about the mid-1990s, I took my first climatology class. And we were looking at paleoclimatology, which is looking at the climate through the past, through geologic time, and figuring out through the type of rocks that were there what the climate must have been to create that kind of depositional environment. And so that really fascinated me.
And then we got into the changing climate of the day. And this is the mid-1990s, and at the time, Dr. Trapasso, he challenged us that the climate is changing and it’s caused by the amount of CO2 that humans are putting into the atmosphere. And that was new to me at the time. I was in my young twenties and looking outside and looking at the real data that was rolling in through real-life data stations and being analyzed. There was no question over time that, boy, we’re doing something to this planet that’s not acceptable.
And I really got into geology to try to save the world, because that’s just what I felt like—my mom said I could do anything I want to do, and so I was like, well, that sounds like a pretty good thing to do. And so whenever I found geology, I thought, wow, this is my opportunity to learn about this earth, to save it. And then, just through my minor, I ended up taking these climatology classes, which really fascinated me too.
And so, I don’t know, I just feel very lucky to be able to get into these fields in the mid-1990s and kind of seeing what they were saying in the mid-1990s, saying that the climate will be warming and it’ll become more unpredictable; you’ll start seeing droughts develop, desert develop, desertification happening in the American Southwest, you know. And you’re starting to see long-term droughts develop there. And this stuff was being predicted by climate models back in the mid-1990s. They’re holding true, and actually the models are getting better and better with the more we study the climate and what CO2 and temperature does to different patterns of ocean currents and things like that. I mean, it’s just—they’re getting more solid, and they were solid back then.
TM: Well, you know what’s interesting to me, Jake, is that you’ve got all this information about geology and climate, but your career really is in organic and converting conventional farmers to organic. Is there a connection?
JS: Of course there is, yeah. And so, you know, back whenever I was doing geology, the way I got into agriculture, other than growing up on a direct-market Christmas tree farm where we also grew vegetables, and we gave our vegetables away… My father, the local farmers market folks would get upset with him because he’d give the vegetables away. But he decided that’s what he really wanted to do, so we did that. But the trees we did sell for profit. And so I grew up on a farm and got this degree, and I thought, well, you know, farm life just taught me some good work ethic, and here I go—I’m going to get into the geology world.
Well, my first job, major job, was for the Center for Cave and Karst Studies at Western Kentucky University, as a geologist, to do the environmental impact study of a very large factory complex that was going to be 7,000 acres—airport, interstate highway system, train depot, all coming into some of the most productive, fertile farmland in Kentucky. And I did the environmental impact study there, and what I was finding were the caves were really close to the surface, and that any kind of grading of the ground, you’re going to open up huge caverns, and great potential for floors to collapse, and things like that, in factories.
But before I was even done with this, they came out and publicly said, the people who were developing the land, said that it’s the perfect place to build this trans park. And they already had their decision made, and I was still a month or two away from having my environmental impact study for the project, for them to even know that—I was two or three months away from having that project done. So I just went and resigned from the job and blew the whistle and let everyone know that it was not a suitable place.
And after I did that, I couldn’t find another job in geology. I found out that they really want geologists to exploit the world. They want the geologist to go find the resources and to try to make the resources we have look suitable to build factories on. And so I got disheartened, and I could not find another geology job.
I was thinking, well, maybe in the regulatory world, the state will probably hire me—I’ve got integrity. Surely a regulator would want a good geologist. And I just so happened to stumble across organic coordinator for Kentucky Department of Agriculture. And so they hired me to create the organic certification program for Kentucky Dept. of Ag. And all of a sudden, I felt so relieved—I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. Like all of a sudden here I was, thinking about how I’m going to probably have to be reactive to save the world, but now I can get into organic agriculture and be proactive to save the world. And I’ve never looked back.
TM: Wow, lucky you on that one. And yet you are still being able to bring your knowledge of geology and climatology to farming, and organic farming in particular. I’m sure that you’ve been witnessing this movement to say that there is no climate change, which I think is going away. But what do you think about that? In the 1990s, did you see that kind of reaction when you were studying it?
JS: Oh yeah. I mean, it just makes sense that the people who make a lot of money from what’s happening, what’s putting the pollutant in the air, the CO2 in the air, it just makes sense that they’re going to try to protect their livelihood—the coal industry, the fossil fuel industry, they’re going to protect their livelihood. And so they have done a masterful job of making the 5 percent, 6 percent probably of the population that’s highly skeptical look like the majority, because they’re the ones that have money to amplify their voices.
But the data is the voice that speaks the loudest. And when a hurricane smashes into Florida or New York, that speaks louder than any campaign that the fossil fuel industry can ever fund. And so that’s happening way too frequently, and unfortunately the fossil fuel industry has the ability to amplify their voice through their funding of all the commercials you see on TV and in every magazine there is. And so whenever a storm crashes into New York City, or down in Florida, into the Gulf or somewhere, those storms speak louder than any advertising the fossil fuel industry can do. And unfortunately, it takes those events for people to start listening to scientists.
TM: In the 1990s, when you were studying this, there were some predictions, probably, about 2015 and 2020. What did you hear then that you see as coming true today?
JS: Well, it’s definitely a more variable climate today, and that’s what was being predicted. And they predicted that the, like I said, the desertification of the Southwest, and just the warming trend that we’re going to see. And nineteen of the warmest years happened in the last twenty. And so we are definitely on a very warming trend. There’s been a lot of spin, trying to say that we had a global warming hiatus, why didn’t we warm during this period? Those numbers are so bogus. I mean, we have been warming forever, and it’s a global thing. They’re looking at the surface temperatures only, but this is a global warming thing. It’s the total energy in is increasing and being held here and not being released. We’re not releasing any of this energy because of the greenhouse gases that holds the energy in, the thermal energy in. So, I mean, the science is clear, the physics is clear. The records are showing it.
I just attended, a few years back at the University of Kentucky, a summit for the climate and agriculture. And there were state climatologists from all over the country there; there were researchers from all the universities there. And basically the consensus amongst this group who were looking at how was this going to affect our agriculture, is basically the state climatologist from Kentucky, who kind of summed up the thought of it all, said everything we’ve learned in the past about agriculture is not going to prepare us for what we’re getting ready to face with climate change and agriculture. It’s going to happen so fast, and it’s so unpredictable, that we are just going to have to almost be reaction-based, because there are things that make total sense when they happen but they’re so hard to predict.
For instance, the poles are getting so warm compared to the equator—they’re warming twice as fast at the poles, the temperature there, than it is at the equator. And energy flows from high levels to low levels. It’s like in a mountain stream, it’s going to flow down the hill to the ocean. So electricity is going to flow from the source to where there is none—down the copper wire where there is none—so it’s going to flow out to the countryside. So it flows from high levels to low levels.
So what’s holding our climate in place and making this jet stream be so tight and nice and move so fast was a high variable between the equator and the poles in temperature. With the high differences the gradient was steep, and so you would have a fast jet stream, moving real fast. And think about a top spinning—you’re spinning a top real fast and it’s real tight, and it’s not even wobbling or anything. It’s sitting there tight.
Well, then, as soon as the top starts slowing down, it wobbles like crazy, and it kind of like will hold those wobbles real long. Well, our jet stream, as that is coming closer, the poles are coming closer to the equator’s temperature, we are seeing the top starting to slow down. And so as the top is spinning slower, the currents of the ocean are circulating slower, so therefore they can’t …they don’t mix up as much. So slow water is getting warmed by the ultraviolet from the sun more, so it’s warming faster. The jet stream now is starting to dip like a top when it’s getting ready to fall—it’s wobbling a lot and really moving. Well, the jet stream now dips really far south and brings arctic air to the southern United States, and it stays there for a while because it’s slow-moving now, whereas before it used to be real tight and pretty predictable. Now it’s unpredictable and really slow.
And so these unpredictable weather patterns stick around for a while. That’s why Boston got hit over and over and over this winter. That’s why whenever you see flooding happening in Texas earlier this spring, it just kept happening over and over and over. It just happens like everywhere now, extreme weather events happen to the same spots over and over and over.
TM: And they kind of settle in? Is that’s what’s happening with California then?
JS: It’s a very similar thing with California now, yes. These weather patterns are going to be sticking around longer, and so it’s not only extreme but it’s extreme with duration.
TM: So when we look at California and the drought and the amount of agricultural production coming out of California right now, I think I read that California was something like the third-largest agricultural production region in the world. What kind of future prediction are you seeing as you’re someone who’s in farming and someone who understands climatology? What can we be doing in California or helping California? What should they be doing?
JS: Well, the thing that we need to do is diversify our food supply completely in geographic locations where we’re growing, and we’ve got to grow it more places. We have to decentralize our food system. Basically, all that produce being grown in California, we need to find pockets all over the country to grow that produce where it can be grown. It may not be the perfect 500-acre field where you can run a big piece of equipment and have a big work staff that you can just run right through it and harvest all your lettuce. It might take a few more hands. But more hands in agriculture is not a bad thing. Job creators are a positive thing.
So I think that especially in the eastern United States, with all the Amish communities that have really nice produce auctions and a good work ethic, ability to work with their hands, I think we’re going to see a decentralized food system happen from this. People will be more thrilled to get probably more local food, and it’d be beneficial to not have your eggs all in that one basket, that Central Valley.
TM: Are you seeing a potential like movement to more job creation on farms, and maybe more people going into farming, but probably in the northern latitudes?
JS: Yes, there will have to be. I mean, the northern latitudes is key here because, as we dry up, the climate physics is, as the air warms up, it can hold more moisture. And so as it can hold more moisture, this bucket gets bigger and bigger as the temperature gets…so it doesn’t condense out into rain. And so when you get into the northern latitudes, in areas like Canada and Russia, that will be the future breadbaskets. And so they probably will not be able to grow the same crops we did in those more southern latitudes, and so we will probably find new crops that are being grown that will replace the niche of other things that we’re used to eating today. So we’ll probably see diets change, and we’ll definitely see agricultural regions change.
TM: What have you heard about livestock production, or what are your thoughts on the movement of livestock production north? You mentioned something about desertification happening in the Southwest. What do you think about that?
JS: Yes, it will, and it probably should. Cows eat cool-season grasses and they thrive on cool-season grasses, and cool-season grasses thrive further north. And grasslands are perennial, and they’re ready to catch the sunlight as soon as the temperature and moisture is proper. So there’s really no wasted ground. You think about a cornfield, or any annual, even vegetable fields, their soil, a lot of times, there’s cover crops that work in, but then, as soon as you plant the crop, you’re looking at little bitty plants in a big field, and there’s a lot of dirt visible, which means it’s not photosynthesizing, not capturing the sun. And plus you’re putting it in after any freeze could possibly be past.
But these cool-season grasses are thriving the instant that the weather is proper and the sun is proper and the temperatures are proper. And so that’s what the cows thrive on. And together, good pasture and a cow are just perfect for one another. The soil has the same microbes as the rumen, and so every manure patty on a well-grazed piece of ground, every piece of ground will have a manure patty hit it once every three years. And so you are inoculating that ground with this super microbe package with the nutrients that that ground needs, and so you are sequestering so much carbon. I work with a farmer in Kentucky—in seven years he went from 1 percent organic matter to about 5 percent organic matter, give or take a little bit, on all of his fields through grazing. And he had a corn rotation going through there. He would put corn in his weakest pasture stand and replenish it with a stronger pasture the next year, reseeding, and he was able to get from 1 percent to 5 percent, which is tons and tons of carbon taken from the atmosphere and put into the soil.
So whenever we start using livestock properly and have them graze intensively and manage grasslands with it, we can drive up carbon in the soil and have a regenerative food source for our population. So it’s really, I see cows as a major solution for climate change.
TM: What I’m hearing is a big endorsement of our livestock feeding on that perennial grass and eating less corn and soy. It’s hard to imagine that would happen anytime soon. And then there’s the big question of, okay, we put more livestock into grass-based systems—could that help with the greenhouse gas emission?
JS: It is possible. It’s going to take a long time, for sure, because there are so many things against us right now, all these positive feedback loops. There’s, the rest of the world’s just now getting to where we were long ago on our fossil fuel burning and coal-fired power plants. And so there’s a lot of the people around the world that are still in the upswing of their carbon use. And so we’re going to have to try to wait that out.
But yet, basically, we can reverse it. It’s going to take a worldwide effort to do it. So really, I’m kind of focused on how are we going to react to this? Because it’s coming—it’s going to get more strange, the weather’s going to get more strange, it’s going to get more extreme. It’s going to get probably longer periods of dry with, you might get the same amount of rainfall annually but it’s probably going to come in a very few events, and you’re going to see five, six inches rain be common. And so making sure that your ground is in cover. If you have a cornfield plowed up, ready to be planted, and that five inches of rain comes, you just lost a lot of your soil, whereas if it’s in pasture, it’s ready to accept that water.
And especially making sure you don’t have any water flowing off your farm. You want to have swales, you want to have retention ponds, you want to have cisterns. You want to have everything you can to capture every piece of water that hits that farm, because you’re going to need it for the dry time.
TM: What is a swale?
JS: A swale is basically a ditch that runs perfectly level on the ground. It’s completely perfect elevation, so water, when…you put one where you start having water channel into, where you’re getting a channel and then it’ll start eroding whenever waters starts getting into a channel. So what you do is where you see the water starting to accumulate, you dig that equal, perfect-level ditch through there and extend it across the whole hillside, and then the water will flow into there and it can’t flow out because it goes into a ditch that…it builds up like a pond, in a way.
TM: It absorbs.
JS: Yeah, and then it infiltrates right into the soil and recharges the soil instead of flowing down and taking your soil down the hill. And so it’s a good erosion control technique and also a drought-tolerant technique.
TM: What other things do you see now happening with regards to farming and the climate?
JS: Well, I see a lot of variability, and I see hard-to-make decisions, and catastrophe floods that ruin good crops. You know, good crop season and all of a sudden a vicious storm comes up and the hail makes your six-, seven-foot tall corn into just nothing but shreds on the ground. I’ve seen herds of a couple hundred cows completely drown from huge, a foot of rain falling in a short period of time in the Pacific Northwest. There’s roofs collapsing in super-wet, thick snows that are happening in the Southeast that we’re not used to—we don’t build infrastructures to withstand… I had a greenhouse on my own personal farm that went down in a snowstorm. I just wasn’t required to have as many rafters as I should have had in there, but almost a foot of wet snowfall on a greenhouse down there is just very uncommon.
So we have all these variables that are happening that just make it really hard to farm. Or you’ll have, for instance, this year, trying to grow corn or any crop, try to make hay in Indiana or Ohio, and it’s just impossible. It basically started raining in June and it hasn’t quit. And so the farmers have not been able to cultivate corn, if they were able to even plant it. There are people with first-cutting hay here in mid-July that’s still in the field—they can’t get in to cut it.
TM: Well, I want to thank you so much, Jake, for visiting with us today and for your thoughtful insights into farming and climate change and the environment. And I want to thank all of you out there, listeners, for tuning in.
JS: Well, thank you for hosting me today. It feels great to be in this great Tobacco Warehouse here in Viroqua, Wisconsin, for this Kentucky boy.
Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.