Foodie Farmer Tackles Issues

Dietitian Background Gives Maryland Farmer a Voice in Biotech Battles

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
Connect with Chris:
Jennie Schmidt stands in her farm's 22-acre vineyard in eastern Maryland. The Schmidts have one of the largest vineyards in Maryland, though the farm sells all of its grapes to Maryland wine producers. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

SUDERVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- When the National Research Council was looking for a farmer to give some perspective on biotech crops, weed management and farming practices, Jennie Schmidt got the call last March to come in and talk to the group of largely academic people.

Schmidt acknowledged at the time that speaking to the research council was somewhat intimidating, because that's not her normal audience.

"I feel like I'm bypassing the grass ceiling for women in agriculture," joked Schmidt, who serves as first vice president of Maryland Grain Producers.

Still, one of Schmidt's strengths is being able to talk about food from the agronomic side, including talking about her own family's farm practices and crop data analysis. She lets audiences know early on she's not just the farm's bookkeeper.

"Yes, I keep the books, but I'm also the one who holds the commercial pesticide applicator license and the one with the nutrient-management license. I'm an active participant able to run just about all of the equipment that we have," she said.

Schmidt, who farms with her family on the Delmarva Peninsula in Maryland, has increasingly become a go-to farmer to talk to a broad range of groups about farming practices and nutrition, mainly because she's also a registered dietitian. Her education and work experience make Schmidt a popular speaker for groups such as state dietetic associations. Dietitians are increasingly interested not just in nutrition, but also food security and agricultural topics.

"I talk a lot about innovations in agriculture because I want them to understand modern agriculture isn't my husband and I looking like the American Gothic couple with a pitchfork and some coveralls. It seems to be common for a lot of people to think it's OK for them to use technology, but they don't want it in their food," she said.

Schmidt highlighted her family's own on-farm data to show the National Research Council costs for different farming practices and production. She can compare the difference in time and labor for the number of field passes in a season: 13 for organic versus six for biotech. Another chart compares biotech soybeans grown for poultry feed versus non-biotech varieties grown for tofu. For the soybeans, 17 years of data show biotech varieties producing higher yields ranging from 3 bushels per acre to 20 bpa in other years.

She also pointed out the differences in both yield and income per acre. For Bt corn versus non-Bt varieties, the yield difference can range from 6 bpa in 2000 to 54 bpa in 2012 -- a drought year in Maryland. Depending on the price of corn, that yield shift translates into a revenue difference of $15 to $399 per acre. She noted that the biotech varieties outperform non-biotech varieties, especially in years with bad weather.

"We have had a yield difference every year. What's significant about these is the yield difference in a bad year (for weather)."

Organic groups sometimes dispute Schmidt's figures comparing production, but Schmidt emphasized that she's reporting the data coming from her fields and practices. The Schmidts reached a point at which they decided to drop USDA organic certification. Organic corn was yielding 40 bpa while a field across the street yielded 147 bpa.

"That's a huge economic loss to absorb year after year, which is why we ended up decertifying the organic field," Schmidt said at the National Research Council meeting.

The Schmidts -- Jennie's husband Hans, his brother Alan and their families -- farm about 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, tomatoes, green beans, hay and wine grapes.

Schmidt tells dietitians that crop production technology can be compared to prescriptive diets that a dietitian would recognize in a hospital or institution. Variable-rate fertilizer technology operates much the same way, she tells the dietitian crowd.

"We're being much more prescriptive in what we do and how we apply chemicals or fertilizer," she said. "That generally floors them because they have no idea."

Nonetheless, being vocal about crop production has led Schmidt deep into increasingly rancorous debate over biotechnology. Earlier this summer, a group of actresses led by Blythe Danner and her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, came to Capitol Hill to lobby for a mandatory biotech labeling bill and then made a video championing GMO labels. Paltrow declared she wasn't lobbying as an actress, but as a mother. Schmidt and 10 other women scientists and farmer bloggers countered with their own letter and columns seeking to clarify misinformation about the science put out by the actresses and lobby groups.

"I think that got a lot of traffic and a lot of positive reviews," she said.

Still, the biotech discussions lead Schmidt to tell groups such as the National Research Council that she was a regional winner for Monsanto Farm Mom of the Year in 2011. "I don't make apologies for that. For one, my kids nominated me for that, and second, to be recognized as one of five women in the country for my role in agriculture is nothing to apologize for."

Schmidt thinks the conversation surrounding biotechnology has shifted some because more farmers and scientists are becoming vocal in talking about the benefits of the technology. She noted that people are comfortable with such work in the medical field, but there is a growing pushback against farmers.

"It's interesting there is so much anti-technology in our food, but I think ... the conversation is changing as scientists become more proactive."

Another topic Schmidt often has to address is where to buy food from her farm. She frequently deals with the growing desire among consumers for all farmers to become local, direct-market producers. She points out that people can buy local from the Schmidts if they know where their products are in the grocery store: she highlights products such as tofu, grain fed to chickens, spaghetti sauce and wine.

The Schmidt farm grows about 100 acres of tomatoes for Furmano's, a spaghetti and tomato processor based in Pennsylvania that has profiled their farm on the company's website. Last year, the Schmidts harvested 7.2 million pounds of tomatoes.

"Usually when I start speaking, I explain I'm a grocery store farmer. We are strictly wholesale. Everything we grow we sell to a processor or a distributor that ends up in your grocery store," Schmidt said. "They usually think some big corporate farm grew or some import grew what is in the grocery store."

She added, "I tell people with the size and scale of my farm, I have to farm for the grocery store," she said. "People don't really get the economics of that."

Schmidt can be found on Twitter @FarmGirlJen and on Facebook at The Foodie Farmer.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(BAS)

Chris Clayton