From Thursday to Saturday, I joined 4,000+ people at the MOSES 2016 Organic Farming Conference that is held in La Crosse, Wisconsin. This annual conference, organized by the non-profit MIdwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, is now in its 27th year and is the largest of its kind in the country. (It may also, by the way, be the largest gathering of flannel outside of a lumberjack convention.)
I felt fortunate to attend as there may not be a more important topic than farming that relates to how we treat Creation.
Farming is where human culture intersects with God’s earth in the most dynamic, ongoing, transformative ways while still leaving land and water as land and water. With 40% of the earth’s non-ice terrestrial surface being used to grow food, how we farm has a tremendous impact on the health and vitality of God’s earth as well as on the health of all of us.
With all of that at stake, you’d think Christians and the Church would pay great attention to discerning the proper ethics and principles that should make up the culture of agriculture. But that rarely seems the case.
And that needs to change.
So who am I to be engaged in this discerning? It’s a bit of a mystery how someone raised in in inner city Chicago could find himself in workshops learning about cover crops, soil sampling, glomalin, high tensile fencing, and the workings of the FSA (Farm Services Agency). That I would find it so compelling is an even bigger mystery.
But here I am, and here are just a few notes and anecdotes from the conference that I hope you find meaningnful.
I was taken by the goodness and passion of so many of the farmers there. I met a woman from Minnesota who, along with her husband, is raising pastured animals and other food outside of a small town. They were inspired by the books of Joel Salatin, a Christian farmer, and they are just getting by as they slowly build their business. Yet, they are working their hardest to produce healthy food in ways that work well for the animals and the land. She admitted to be a person who for most of her life has been most comfortable with animals and less so with people. Yet, out of necessity, as they sell their products directly to customers, she is finding pleasure and satisfaction in talking with people about their farming there. She and her husband have faith that this will eventually pay off.
In the midst of the positive energy of MOSES, there were also notes of concern and even despair about world and national trends. Wildlife continues to decline. Did you know that there has been a 90% decline in monarch butterfly populations in the last 20 years? Weather patterns are becoming more severe. A farmer told of how a wind storm destroyed their orchard, and that those kinds of wind storms are becoming more frequent and more powerful. And at times, our own government works against the interests of what is good and what the public and God’s earth need. Instead, it too often works for people and organizations wholeheartedly in thrall to money,. Another Minnesota farmers said these haunting words based on her own experience and those of others: “Our laws don’t seem to be protecting us.”
Yet, the relationship between people with open, loving hearts and the land they tend and care for can be tender and deep. The farmer, whose quote I shared at the end of the last paragraph, also said this, “We love this land so much.”
Several farmers I met and heard made the emphatic point that you will not make lots of money raising livestock on pasture in ways that are good for the animals. One Wisconsin farm where pigs are grazed on pasture in multi-age groups with much consideration for their welfare has five goals: (1) financial sustainability, (2) environmental sustainability, (3) top-level animal welfare, (4) top-level food quality, and (5) overall system robustness. He and his wife do their best to optimize those goals and must continually tinker, rebalance, and refine their system. When you eat food, are you eating food from a farm that cared about all of those elements? Are you and I supporting farmers who have that kind of value system?
I was struck by how adaptive, attentive sustainable farmers need to be. Every year is different. Every field is different. When one part of your farming system changes, it has impacts on the other parts of your system. Ray Archuelata, a conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), explained during a day-long course on enhancing living soil that he and his fellow instructor weren’t there to tell attendees exactly what tools to use in every situation. Instead, they wanted to inspire the farmers to work from an ecological consciousness and awareness and figure out the exact means on their own land.
The soil is central. A common theme was that creating healthy soil is the central task of the sustainable farmer. Healthy soil leads to healthy plants which lead to healthy foods which leads to us, the consumers of those foods, being healthy. How fitting that Genesis describes God forming Adam out of the ground and that “Adam” itself is related to the Hebrew word “adamah” which means soil or ground. Check out this video about soil stewardship using cover crops and livestock that is authentic and inspiring.
Human integrity = ecological integrity. This is a statement that Archuelata made several times. I believe that what he means is that the degree to which the natural systems of the earth will thrive is determined by the degree to which we have as much integrity in applying our core values to our stewardship of nature as we do in treating family, friends, and neighbors. Integrity, like God-centered values, is not meant to be compartmentalized.
I hope you will join me in praying for the lives and success of farmers and their families as they respond to a calling to work the earth while at the same time causing it to flourish and thrive.