Farming successfully means being open to change, says 19-year-old Ty Schmidt. Ty is a fifth-generation farmer on Schmidt Family Farm in Preston, Iowa, which has endured a number of pivots since its establishment in 1934.
Ty’s parents Mike and Lorri Schmidt raised both cattle and hogs in their early days on the farm. When the commercial hog market crashed in 1998—then again in 2002—they moved to raising solely cattle through conventional production. In 2011, the family was approached by a local Niman Ranch field agent, asking if they’d like to re-enter the hog market.
The Schmidts had been giving their animals antibiotics to treat and prevent disease, like most farmers in the area. Joining Niman Ranch—a network of more than 750 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers—meant “finding other ways to combat issues that, in the past, we would have just used a shot of antibiotics to fix,” Ty tells Food Tank. “We thought, why not, let’s see how this goes.”
Niman Ranch farmers adhere to strict animal welfare protocols and use sustainable and humane agricultural practices. In return, the company provides farmers with support, guidance, and a guaranteed market for their products.
“It was a whole new learning curve,” Ty says. For example, Niman Ranch farmers use vegetarian feed. The Schmidts had previously purchased feed that contained bone meal, as many conventional hog markets allow, so they worked with a nutritionist to learn about ingredients that would be both healthy for their hogs and sustainable for their land.
By 2016, their hog business gave them peace of mind when the cattle market crashed. “We decided to go all-in on the hogs after that,” Ty says, and the family built three more hoop barns in 2018.
The Schmidts check on their hogs frequently to make sure that they have enough bedding and feed—things that confinement operations, which value quantity over quality, typically don’t focus on.
Now, their expanded hog operation is a boon for the farm’s soil health: hog manure fertilizes the fields, which grow corn to feed the hogs, and the cycle repeats. Their soil core samples have greatly improved in recent years, while crop yields have significantly grown.
But one of the biggest impacts of joining Niman Ranch, according to Ty, has been the reliable community.
“When we were raising cattle, we were all on our own,” Ty says. “We had to figure everything out for ourselves. We were always in that gray area, where we thought we were making money and that things were working out, but we weren’t ever sure.”
Now, if the Schmidts face a problem on the farm that they’re not sure how to solve, they call their field agent or another Niman Ranch farmer. This new way of operating means constantly tackling new problems in new ways, but “we know Niman Ranch always has our back,” Ty says. “We’re part of the family.”
Ty thinks that more farmers could benefit from trying out different ways of operating. “We need to be open to other ways of cultivating the land,” he says. “You don’t have to give an animal a shot of antibiotics just because they look like they may be sick. Maybe they just have a tummy ache that day.”
The family welcomes other farmers to visit and ask questions about what it means to be a sustainable hog farmer, and Mike always goes out of his way to make himself available to those who may need support.
Ty is actively involved in the Niman Ranch community. He helps out as a farmer ambassador and was the company’s distinguished 2020 David Serfling Memorial Scholarship recipient, which is helping him finish his education at Northeast Iowa Community College. After graduation, Ty plans to branch out into his own hog operation and one day, when the time is right, take over the family farm.
He hopes to inspire his peers to keep improving, which includes being transparent so that others can learn from his mistakes. For Ty, farming this way also just makes sense: “We can’t keep farming the ground and never replenish it. We need to be able to sustain what we’ve got so that future generations can enjoy what I’m enjoying now.”
“This is where I belong, on the farm,” he says, smiling. “I would love to pass all of this to a sixth generation.”