So you’re a farm family with corn and soybean fields stretching in all directions to the horizon away from your house on a rural road.
You’re farming the way everyone else in your community has farmed for decades. You work hard at it every day. You believe you are helping to feed the world.
Suddenly, you hear of a group of people who have begun gathering together in a nearby town for worship and for the restoration of their hearts, minds, and lives to what God offers through Jesus. They call themselves a whole faith church. They seem unusually kind, sincere, thoughtful, and good-natured. You hear, too, that the people of this church teach, among many other things, that there are certain principles for how God’s land and water should be treated. You hear that this group of people is mindful of what kind of food they choose to eat together as a church.
And when you dig further, you realize your farming methods don’t seem to jibe with their principles.
How will you react?
Quite possibly with defensiveness and resentment.
Putting ourselves in the shoes of a farm family is a reminder that the way the whole faith church communicates about farming should be thoughtfully done. Farmers are in a tough spot as they have one of the most difficult callings there is. The practical challenges of raising food and making a living in a technologically-intense, market-driven world that is now experiencing intensifying climate change are immense.
It’s critical to remember, too, that farmers and rural communities have often had little voice in how agricultural economies are shaped. In Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, authors Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas highlight how civilizations tend to create agricultural systems that work well for the interests of the civilization and its urban elites. There is a recurring pattern of civilizations creating large-scale, nature-depleting farming systems in the hinterlands that are dependent on advanced technology, complex logistics, sophisticated trading systems, and stable, pleasant climate conditions.
The United States has built exactly this kind of system. And we are now part of an increasingly global farm system that individual farmers and their communities did not choose at a time when the climate is becoming less friendly.
I talked to a diversified farmer recently in central Illinois who remembers when Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, killed the supply management policies of the New Deal while promoting big new export deals for American commodity farm products (for a great overview, read this article from Grist). The New Deal policies, based on the lessons of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, had been designed to protect farmers from market swings in commodity prices while also protecting the land.
Under Butz, the new goal was for American farmers to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible and to let the market sort out the winners and losers. Butz encouraged farmers to plant from fence row to fence row. He often said, “Get big or get out.”
That central Illinois farmer I talked to remembers how neighbors who used to be friends in his area began competing fiercely against each other to acquire the land they needed for their farms to survive. Fistfights broke out.
When this intense production fever led to lower prices even as interest rates on loans went up, there was an epidemic of farm failures in the 1980s. Fewer farmers remained. Natural areas were plowed up across the country. The social life that used to define small towns withered away. The interests of the local and small places in America’s countryside were sacrificed for the interests of the national economy and big companies.
It’s clear from the Bible that wealth and power are not what God called people to pursue.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. People of the Christian faith should be instinctively allergic to any philosophy or policy that drives us to maximize wealth and power while simultaneously minimizing our commitment to other virtues and to the health of the commonwealth.
Proverbs 27: 23-27 provides some interesting food for thought:
Be sure you know the condition of your flocks,
give careful attention to your herds;
for riches do not endure forever,
and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears
and the grass from the hills is gathered in,
the lambs will provide you with clothing,
and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed your family
and to nourish your female servants.
Riches and crowns, as I read it, are shorthand for economic wealth and political power. The writer is saying wealth and power can seem so important and pressing but are actually fleeting and can cause us to take our eyes away from what matters most. It also suggests that the foundation of stable family life, the basic building block of any community, is careful attention to the on-the-ground conditions of the land and animals we raise for food.
These ancient verses from Proverbs remind us that careful, attentive husbandry of land, water, and livestock is not some new fad. It is the old, old school of farming.
Really knowing the condition of your herds and paying careful attention to your flocks takes time and patience. It means creating the conditions for your animals to thrive in ways that are natural for them. When Proverbs was written, the audience would also have understood that you can’t have healthy flocks and herds without healthy pastures. Pastures also need attention and careful observation.
Insightful people like Wes Jackson say that for that kind of attention to be given to the land you need a high enough ratio of eyes per acre. In other words, you have to have enough people looking at any property’s acreage to know how the land is really responding to how it is being used.
We can suppose that the eyes-to-acres ratio is approximately correct when a place is thriving in human use and care. The sign of its thriving would be the evident good health and diversity, not just of its crops and livestock but also of its population of native and noncommercial creatures, including the community of creatures living in the soil. Equally indicative and necessary would be the signs of a thriving local and locally adapted human economy.
On the other hand, the more land that is being farmed by the same number of people (the lower the ratio of eyes-to-acres) the less attention can be given to the health of the land and water of a particular farm field. The bottom line is that farming, like any enterprise, can grow beyond the limits of the natural capacities of people, nature, and community life. In many places, as a result of policies and national and industrial imperatives, our farms are too big for the kind of care that Proverbs speaks of. But farmers have felt pressured to move to that scale and to rely heavily on technology to do so.
We should empathize with farmers who have to live and work here at the tension point between a civilization’s riches and a farmer’s calling to treat God’s earth well and to produce good, healthy food. They are caught in a system. Doctors who cannot give their patients the time and care they need because of our current health care system are also stuck in a similar situation. That is a difficult, stressful place to be.
The whole faith church will recognize the challenging position farmers are in and show great love to them.
Conversely, farmers of all kinds will, I hope, eventually recognize why whole faith churches will choose food that has been raised in keeping with the fruits of the spirit. The why is that eating compassionately and with God’s love for people and all Creation is a natural expression of hearts that have been transformed by God.
Hopefully, farmers will see, too, that this counter-cultural approach to food is actually profoundly supportive of the long-term interests of farmers and their rural communities.