Arnold Schmidt is a lifelong farmer with an inventive mind, a powerful creative imagination. There is one thing he hasn’t been able to imagine, though: slowing down.
“Even though he’s 82, he’s not ready to retire because life is just now beginning to get interesting,” says his wife Leora, whom he married last year.
In their farming and in their lives, Arnold and Leora have enthusiastically embraced the ancient aphorism ascribed to Hippocrates: “Let food be your medicine.” That principle was a major factor in Arnold’s decision to begin using organic techniques on his fields in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan — bountiful veganic fields which grow white wheat for One Degree breads, cereals and flour.
“When you farm organically and have the enzymes working for you, you have approximately 90 elements” fortifying the plant, he explains, while “with commercial fertilizer you’re only working with less than 10 elements.” By using smart farming techniques and keeping a close eye on the nutrient composition of the soil, “You’re giving the human race some food that has nourishment in it.”
There was another compelling reason for the switch to organic farming, a matter of life and death. More than thirty years ago, Arnold was accidentally sprayed with grasshopper insecticide out in the fields. “I was fortunate enough that I was close to a water truck and was able to wash it down,” he recalls. “That was a close call. There are fellas who were exposed to it less than me and died from it. Grasshopper poison attacks the nervous system; it does a real number on you.”
The incident focused the full range of his talents: an immense practicality, a characteristic big picture perspective, and a strong personal faith which reminds him daily that his role is to be a steward of the land and a blessing to the world around him. Every way he looked at the issue, the conclusion was inescapable. It was time to walk away from chemicals and become an organic farmer.
Arnold’s roots go very deep in this land. The farm began as a homestead purchased by his grandmother for the equivalent of about 20 dollars in the early part of the last century. She arrived in Canada from America as a widow, with a family ancestry that can be traced back to Czarist Russia. “They were some of the German people who came out of Russia and came to the U.S. and then lived in the city and worked in factories,” he says. “They were actually country people; they didn’t like the cities too much.”
The family cleared the land and built a house made of plaster, clay and straw. It was a tough life. There were no roads, and the nearest town was 30 miles away. But the abundance of healthy grass on this vast treeless prairie was a sign that the land was extraordinarily rich.
It was on this rich soil that Arnold developed an enduring respect for nature and a love for the rhythms of the fields. He hasn’t missed a harvest since the year he first operated a combine, at age 16. This incredible work ethic is complemented by a joyful compulsion to invent and improve. Together with his assistants, Arnold designed the machinery that is used to mill the harvested wheat, and sells these inventions to other farming operations. As he puts it: “With Schmidt Mills you retain all of the nutritional goodness of the whole grain in a flour that has superior cooking and baking qualities. And the very same mill can also be used to process spices, seasonings, and who knows what else.”
Arnold is deeply involved in another creative enterprise: creating his own healthy seeds. “We feel our seed is higher in nutrients than anything that we could buy,” he says. It’s all part of a natural cycle: “If the soil is treated right, your soil gets better, your seed gets better and the people who eat that grain have more nutrients.”
It’s not surprising that soil is a subject that fully engages his creativity and natural curiosity. Arnold has refined a balanced approach to the land to maintain the richness of his fields. “The best method I’ve found is planting wheat and rye together, spring wheat and fall rye,” he explains. In this process, parcels are given time to lie fallow, allowing bacteria and enzymes to build nutrients.
Arnold has been using this particular rotation for the past five years, and he reports that the nutrient value of his soil is much higher than fields that use animal by-products for fertilization. “There’s nothing higher in nutrient value that I’ve found. Manure doesn’t even get close to that. Manure is only as good as the crop that the animals ate, or the grain they ate. Nowadays much of the grains, hay and grass fed to animals is so low in nutrients.”
A much wiser strategy is to substitute intelligence and patience for manure, he advises. “You really don’t have to add anything when you play along with nature. The nutrients will build up on their own, but you’ve got to cooperate, give them a chance to be able to do their thing.”
Maintaining rich nutrient value in the soil is the key to controlling insects and weeds. “When you have nutrients, insects are no problem, they’re a thing of the past when you really have the nutrients. The insects have no pancreas, and when you have a plant that’s high in sugar content that means you’ve got the phosphorous and the calcium there to make that sugar. When you have a high sugar content in a plant, when the insect takes a bite of that he finds it’s way too strong for him. He cannot digest the high sugar content. He either moves on or in some cases he actually dies.”
Nutrient-rich fields are the foundation for so much: strong crops, and ultimately healthy consumers. “Good soil, that’s where it all starts.”
From soil to sky, from seed to harvest, farming is essentially a creative challenge for Arnold, a great puzzle that he approaches with youthful vigor. “You learn about one thing and that teaches you something else,” he says, with a hint of wonder. “I’ve begun to realize I’m just scratching the surface.”
— Charlie Dodge