Archives For Food & Farming

Have you ever eaten a pawpaw?

I just tasted one for the first time. It brought to mind the phrase from Psalm 34:8 – “O taste and see that the LORD is good…”

Linda Wiens, pictured here, is in the middle of this story. A former staff member and current volunteer for the non-profit organization for which I work, Linda organized the planting of a small demonstration orchard near our office a number of years ago. Among the American quinces, apples, pears, persimmons, cherries, plums, and other fruit trees she had planted, there were two pawpaw trees.

Linda Wiens holds the leaves of a pawpaw tree aside so the fruit on the tree can be seen.

Linda Wiens, a long-time member of a local Mennonite congregation, shows the fruit of a pawpaw tree that she had planted with many other kinds of fruit trees in a small orchard.

This fall, one of the pawpaws bore fruit for the first time.

As way of background, here’s the first paragraph of the first chapter of Andrew Moore’s excellent book – Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit:

Throughout the years it’s gone by a lot of names – frost banana, Indiana banana, fetid-bush, bandango, custard apple, prairie banana, poor man’s banana – but most of the time it’s just been called pawpaw. At first glance, both the fruit and the tree seem out of place in North America. A cluster of young pawpaws hanging from its branch resembles a miniature hand of bananas. And those clusters are tucked behind the tree’s lush foliage, shaded by leaves often a foot in length, larger and broader than those of avocado and mango. Wild pawpaws often appear kidney-shaped, two to six inches long, and one to three inches wide; they typically weigh from just a few ounces to half a pound. But under cultivation – and yes, there are pawpaw breeders and growers – fruits that weigh more than a pound and half are not uncommon.

This native American fruit can be found in 26 states. The heart of its range runs from the far eastern side of Kansas all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The line formed by the northern borders of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas roughly forms the range’s east-west backbone. Check out the map (you’ll need to scroll down a bit) in this good online growing guide.

Speaking of geography, if someone tells you they’re from a town called Paw Paw, you’ll need to ask them which one. Six states – Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and West Virginia – have a town called Paw Paw. And there would be seven if you counted Paw Paw Island in Louisiana.

George Washington planted pawpaws at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson sent pawpaw seeds to Europe. It was even a big part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s diet in the last week of their trip back to Saint Louis.

It’s a part of American history that we had forgotten. And it’s now being rediscovered.

But wait, you say, what does it taste like? How do you eat it?

A plate with cross sections of pawpaws on display as well as two uncut pawpaws.

You can slice pawpaws up in cross-sections (after peeling off the skin) or cut them in half length-wise and spoon out the flesh of the fruit.

A close up of cut-up cross-sections of a pawpaw which have had the skins removed.

You will likely never find a fresh pawpaw in your local grocery store. It has a very short shelf life, and it will not ripen if picked prematurely. To paraphrase the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, there is a time to eat pawpaws and there is a time to wait for the next pawpaw season.

I found the taste something like a mix of banana, mango, and custard. The consistency reminded me of a well-ripened avocado.

And I liked it! Despite having to work around the large black seeds, I liked the flavor.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I cut up more cross-sections for our Friday staff meeting in early October. Some of my colleagues appreciated the novel taste. Others did not.)

There are many culinary options for this American fruit. We know that the Iroquois, for example, dried pawpaws and then used them in sauces and also cooked them into corn cakes. This worked well nutritionally.  Corn is very low in niacin while pawpaw is rich in it. Native Americans found the tree and its fruit so useful that they spread the tree west of the Mississippi and north into the area around Ontario.

At the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Athens County, Ohio, you can taste a wide variety of foods in which people are using pawpaws.

Salsas. Curries. Puddings. Mousse. Crepes. Ice Cream. All with pawpaws.

And that’s not even mentioning the many micro-brews. Like the Pawpaw Sour Ale from Upland Brewing Company and Putnam’s Pawpaw Ale from Marietta Brewing. There is also the Paw Paw Wheat from Jackie O’s Brewery in Athens, Ohio.

I could go on for a long time about this fascinating plant and its lore. I’d like to tell you more about the fact that zebra swallowtail butterflies can only persist as long as there are pawpaws. Or that pawpaw trees contain complex chemical compounds that fight cancer.

But I want to end with a question.

How does the pawpaw fit into your understanding of God’s world?

Are theology, prayer, and worship in a church building the only ways to know and connect with God? Or is God also with us and pleased with us when we immerse ourselves in this complex world and understand, appreciate, savor, and mend it?

I’d vote for the latter. And I’d say pawpaws are a good place to start.

 

I urge Christians and churches to plant native species of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers in their landscapes. If you’re in the home range of pawpaws and have the right conditions, why not plant a few of them? I planted two last  year on the east side of our house where it’s not too windy and the soil rarely dries out completely. (By the way, you need to plant two or more pawpaws relatively close to each other for the trees to have a chance to bear fruit). According to this article from Indianapolis, at least one church and a synagogue have planted pawpaws. If you’ve heard of others, please let me know!

 

I want to suggest that you add something a little different to your bucket list.

Before you die, be sure to attend a farm field day put on by a sustainable farmer.

Field days are usually geared for other farmers, but don’t let that scare you away. Field days are a chance to be immersed in the craft of farming with good, friendly people. You’ll see farming and the land in a new way.

This Tuesday, I made a one-day, eight-hour round trip to attend a field day at Trevor Toland’s River Oak Ranch in Macomb, Illinois that had been organized by The Pasture Project.

Despite the driving and the fact that I got home at 1:30 a.m., it was well worth it.

After some initial comments and presentations, more than 70 of us were carried around on hay wagons to different areas of Trevor Toland’s farm.  He has been converting much of his 380+ acre farm on rolling land to a rotational grazing system for a number of years. At each stop, Trevor explained how he has been managing each section and how the grazing of cattle has been part of that management system.

Rotational grazing is the grazing of large numbers of cattle for short periods of time on small sub-sections of a farm. The cattle are then rotated onto the next small sub-section.

Each grazed subsection then has at least 30 days (and often more) to recover. This mimics what buffalo and other wild ruminants have been doing for millennia. It gives cows what they naturally desire to eat – grass and flowering plants (especially legumes) – and the chance to move around outdoors. Thanks to always being covered with a variety of plants that feed the microbes underground, the soil becomes full of life. That life is made even more rich by the occasional but intense pulses of dung, urine, and even saliva coming from the cattle herd. In addition, the action of their hooves stomps plant matter into direct contact with the soil where insects and microbes can work on it.

Continually adapting exactly how and where the cattle are grazed is a key element to this approach to farming.

Dr. Allen Williams (kneeling and imitating the partial consumption of a grass by a cow) explained how grasses and other pasture plants can persist and thrive when cows are allowed to eat only 50% before being moved to another field. Grasses and other plants that persist with healthy root systems can then feed the soil microbes in the ground while also shading the ground. Healthy microbial life is the key to healthy soils that feed plants and hold water.

Trevor, seen standing in front of the small tractor, is the best of what it means to be Midwestern. He’s direct, thoughtful, humble, and honest about his challenges. I later learned that he played basketball for the University of Iowa and was a principal before becoming a farmer.

The bonus feature of the event and the main reason I drove the many miles was that Dr. Allen Williams was the featured speaker. Before we actually got out into the fields, he presented an overview of rotational grazing using high densities of cattle. While out in the fields, he added insightful commentary at a number of our stops and answered questions..

A self-described “recovering academic,” Allen farms in Mississippi and is a tireless evangelist for rotational grazing across the country. A good introduction to him and rotational grazing is the Soil Carbon Cowboy video.

What’s especially interesting is that Allen is a Christian.

His faith in our Creator God is what motivates him to do what he does.

He speaks with passion, knowledge, and conviction. He helps his audience understand the complexities of how soil and animals interact. He carries himself with both decency and strength.

Dr. Allen Williams explained that it is helpful to maintain wooded sections of a farm. Cattle can be brought to the woods to cool down during hot weather. He noted, too, that you can tell when a pasture has microbes thriving in the ground by the degree to which insects and spiders are thriving above the ground.

As Christians, we should be proud of Allen and other Christians who are advancing Creation-friendly farming method with integrity and energy.

We should also support the kind of life-affirming, God-affirming farming he practices and helps thousands of other farmers implement.

You and your church can do that by buying meat that comes from animals raised the way Trevor Toland does at River Oak Ranch.

If you’re interested in attending a field day on a farm where sustainibility is a key principle, please email me at nathan@libertyprairie.org. I can share some good resources, depending on where you live. I wrote a post earlier about the commitment a whole faith church would make to having the food for its common meals come from sustainable, well-stewarded farms. I also wrote about the care with which whole faith churches need to communicate about farming ethics. Farmers are our neighbors.

Back in mid-August of 2016, I posted a blog entitled Food and the Whole Faith Church. In it I wrote the following:

“A defining feature of a whole faith church will be that this community of believers will be fully committed to demonstrating the proper and attentive relationship between humanity and Creation in its common meals, including communion.

This means that the food of the whole faith church will come as much as is practically possible from farms where the land, water, and animals of God’s earth are stewarded in ways that God would find fitting of a good, loving shepherd and from farm enterprises which support a good quality of life for the farmers and their communities.”

Then in late September, I wrote a follow-up piece that explored some of the practicalities of applying that principle with ten supplementary principles.

Because food is so central to culture and because forming a church with a new culture of food would be radically different from the life of churches most people know, I believe it’s necessary to wrestle with more of the practicalities and concerns this idea presents. Below you’ll find a series of questions that might reasonably be asked about the ideas I’ve proposed followed by my responses:

 

Isn’t a focus on choosing right foods to eat a new legalism that replaces the Gospel of grace with a gospel of deeds?

No. And an emphatic double no.

It is true that early Christians were concerned about food arguments dividing them and compromising their ability to evangelize diverse groups of people. And I’ve become convinced that church members should not be so focused on food purity that they refuse to eat, if there is no other choice, food they normally wouldn’t eat when it is offered to them in social situations with people who are not members of the church.

But you would have to twist what is in the Bible as a whole to believe that a Christian faith does not express itself in action and in daily decisions. This conviction is one of the pillars of a whole faith church.

Living out the faith and the loving spirit that comes with that faith will compel us to make every detail of our church’s life fit together. The common meals of a whole faith church are the home turf of that church. In those common meals we have the right to express our faith completely and holistically. Not doing so actually hollows out all of the meaning of the Christian faith. How Christian is a community that eats ham, for exactly, that has come from pigs raised in factory farms where thousands are kept inside their whole lives, where fecal particulates fill the air, where local waterways are defiled, where the lives of neighbors are made miserable, and where the pigs are fed a steady stream of antibiotics to promote growth which contributes to antibiotic resistant bacteria that kill people?

Our faith is an incarnational faith. It is not just an abstract assent to abstract doctrines and ideas. It calls for belief in God through Jesus that our actual lives rest on and are rooted in. Jesus showed us what that looks like. Jesus’ earthy parables, like that of the Good Samaritan, rooted ideas and values in paradigm-shifting stories.

Nevertheless, there is nuance in this conversation that must be respected and approached carefully. There is, for example, a whole spectrum of farming methods. And the question of how to balance ideals and practicality is one a thoughtful farmer must wrestle with everyday. I hope all of us are wise enough to know that there are things we don’t know that we don’t know. The whole faith church will need to avoid legalism and harsh judgment. Its members will need to humbly do their best they can to discern what kind of food is fitting for the common meals of the church. They will need to do so with a commitment to truth and also with God’s abiding love and in their hearts.

 

Won’t this turn away potential members?

Yes. The whole faith church will unapologetically have a tangible, distinctive culture that reveals itself in many aspects of the common life of the church and in how members live out their lives. As a result, there will be many aspects (and not just food choices) of the common life in the whole faith church that will be challenging and countercultural. The degree of commitment asked of members may be too much for people who want a casual commitment to God.

But this approach to food and other elements of a church’s common life together also has the potential to attract people who would otherwise not find church meaningful. Some of the people this approach to food might attract are justice-minded, loving people who would respond to a church’s message if the culture of the church was consistent with the Gospel message.

And we should not underestimate the attractiveness of any group of people who are loving, action-oriented, creative, diverse, and who stand for something in all aspects of their lives.

 

Isn’t this a case of a social fad or movement influencing the church rather than the other way around?

I don’t think so. What I am proposing is that the culture of the whole faith church to reflect a willingness to actually apply a transformed and remade heart that sees the world the way God sees it and translates those values into actions in everyday life.

But, hypothetically, if there is some truth to the idea that the larger good food movement is having influence on this conception of a whole faith church, then I believe it is a positive influence. The Church has been largely acquiescent in accepting “progress” that has actually been systematically injurious to people and to Creation in many fields. Technological advancement, the application of that technology, and the direction the free market takes our communities are not automatically good or in keeping with Christian principles. And, of course, neither are they automatically bad or not in keeping with Christian principles. The Church and local churches have simply not been paying attention or guiding Christians in moral, nuanced ways. This is because the Church has largely been spiritual in an abstract and has tried to avoid conflict with the powers that be. As a result, all too often the loudest voices of love and hunger for righteousness in our world are not Christian.

 

Won’t this be expensive?

It’s true that applying Christian values to food choices would mean that the cost of food purchased by the local whole faith church would be higher than it would be buying typical food from a typical grocery store.

But I would make a number of points. First, any church can, if motivated, find a way to afford something that is important to its values. Tradeoffs can be made in other areas.

Second, a whole faith church will think of food and eating choices as part of their community practice of faith, in essence a faith discipline. Food choices in our modern world are not just “food” choices but declarations of what one truly values.

Third, it is far more expensive in the larger context to eat food that has not been raised in ways compatible with a whole faith understanding of the Christian faith. If a faith community supports a food system that is contributing to the diminishment of God’s world, to health issues, and to an agriculture that is not as good as it should be for farmers and their communities, then the faith community is not truly loving its neighbors nor God.  It is not putting its money where its mouth is.

Finally, a church with a dynamic culture that gives purpose, community, and coherence to everything in its members’ lives will be tremendously inspirational and meaningful. People who are members will give generously, perhaps more generously than they would at church where there is more of a lukewarm sense of common commitment.

 

Would this mean whole faith churches would be vegetarian?

Not necessarily. Each whole faith church would have some latitude in what it deemed to be food choices compatible with the loving heart a Christian will have shaped by God. Respect should be given, within the general commitment to apply a whole faith church’s values to the common meals, to the community context of the church.

I must admit that I’ve come to see the consumption of animals in a more complex, nuanced way over the years. Through the research and teaching I’ve been exposed to through my work, it’s become clear to me that for farms to be truly sustainable, livestock are indispensable. It is very hard, for example, to find a natural ecosystem where there are not animals that eat vegetation and poop and help nutrients stay in the system. What’s more, I’ve now seen and read about a number of pasture-based livestock farms that are very humane and treat the animals with great respect. If we make the sacrificial commitment to treat the animals and the land with great respect and affection at the cost of some commercial success, then asking the livestock to also make a sacrifice as part of whole lives that are generally good and respectful of their natures seems to me the best that can be expected of in this fallen world. That’s a hard sentence for me to write as I was vegetarian for many years.

But I must be clear about one thing – I do believe that there is no place in a church’s common meals, for example, for meat from factory-raised, inhumanely treated animals.

 

Will the effort and resources needed to do this take away energy and time that would be better used to advance the core mission of the church?

There would certainly be an upfront investment of time and energy to figure out the guidelines for the church’s common meals and to find the new sources of food to implement those guidelines. But once a system and sources were figured out, this would, like other elements of church and family life, become relatively routine. Down the road, members will have a hard time remembering when and why they could have done it any other way.

 

Won’t this principle antagonize farmers and create an unnecessary divide in the Church?

This is a big, sensitive topic. For an established church in a rural area, it might be too hard to try to adopt this principle because of the controversy and rifts it would create. But I foresee whole faith churches primarily being new churches that spring up to serve people who want to worship and be in communion with other people who share a whole faith vision of what the Christian faith is all about. It will be easier for new churches to establish a new culture since they are starting from scratch.

Of course, ideally, whole faith churches would spring up in rural areas, too. If they do, will farmers whose farming methods wouldn’t meet the whole faith church’s threshold for how a good and loving shepherd would farm feel welcome or harshly judged? Sadly, I think some farmers would feel harshly judged even if that was not the intent.

In light of the sensitivity of this topic for the relationship with farmers, I also wrote Farmers and the Whole Faith Church. Some key points from that piece are: (1) it’s important to recognize what a difficult and challenging calling it is to be a farmer of any kind, (2) paying attention to farming and the impact that our mainstream farming system has on farmers and their communities is actually a pro-farmer orientation, and (3) Proverbs 27:23-27 is a reminder that it is all too easy for all of us to be obsessed with wealth and power and to forget that the foundation of a healthy, prosperous, resilient society and community is an agriculture that is rooted in careful stewardship care of each square foot of land and of each individual animal being raised.

Here’s a paragraph that I believe bears repeating:

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 would in no way judge the character of any farmer but would in fact be warm and welcoming to all people. The whole faith church will have, in fact, special empathy for farmers. By living out its principles, the whole faith church will actually be more pro-farmer and more supportive of rural community life than churches that ignore the values that undergird our current agricultural system.

 

Will the whole faith church not care what members eat outside of the common meals of the church community?

That’s a good question. I’ve been grappling with that point for a while. The whole faith church will care. I’m convinced that one of the ways the whole faith church will be distinctive is that membership will truly mean something.  People who become members in a whole faith church will not only commit themselves to certain beliefs but also commit themselves to certain ways of living and be accountable in some way. A central tenet of this way of living couldn’t help but be attentiveness to how one’s life habits reflect the God-focused, God-shaped heart one now has.

Will the whole faith church expect members to eat every meal to the level of ethical discernment as the common meals of the church? Probably not, although that would be a good goal for any family. But I would be convinced that members would commit themselves to filtering their food buying and eating choices through their faith.

The whole faith church would need to support their member families in that commitment. What would that look like? I’m thinking of something like David Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. My wife and I have begun taking this class on money management through a local church. It’s a powerful, carefully thought-through curriculum that is having a big impact on how Christians and other people manage their money. It’s already impacting how we think about and manage our money.

Why isn’t there something like this to help Christians think carefully about how they steward God’s earth? Because eating is so important for health, for God’s Creation, and for the kind of agriculture that shapes the lives of farmers and rural communities, Christians should put as much thought into their eating as their use of money. The whole faith church should create a curriculum similar to Financial Peace University that would help Christians live out their values in their food choices. The curriculum would not only provide the thought foundation behind thinking carefully about food and guidance about how to determine whether food is compatible with whole Christian faith values, but also provide practical help. Meal plans. Cooking lessons. Visits to farms (or at least virtual visits through a video presentation). Perhaps even special buying relationships with local and sustainable food farmers that make good, healthy food available to members at a reduced cost?

Dave Ramsey asks in one of his video presentations what would happen to God’s Kingdom if millions of Christians applied good principles of money management (including generous giving) in their daily lives. That’s a powerful question.

An equally powerful question is this – “What would happen if millions of Christians applied good principles of shepherding God’s earth in their daily lives with a special focus on their eating and farming choices?”

We have more to learn from Robert Marchand than just about the power of will and the importance of exercise to a long life.

Frenchman Robert Marchand, as you can read in this article, recently set the a world record for his age class – 105-plus years – by riding 14.010 miles in one hour. Ironically, as the video below also relates, a coach had told him many decades ago that “he should give up cycling because he would never achieve anything on a bike.”

 

The story within the story that caught my attention is a quote from his physiologist, Veronique Billat. She said, according to the article, “He could have been faster but he made a big mistake. He has stopped eating meat over the past month after being shocked by recent reports on how animals are subjected to cruel treatment.”

For the physiologist, the mistake was that Marchand had forfeited the chance to achieve even better performance by listening to his conscience. Without intending to do so, Billat has provided us with a metaphor for the myopic way of thinking and living that characterizes many of us today.

What matters most, she is asserting, is our personal performance. Or, taken more broadly, our personal benefit. Performance. Profit. Convenience. Power. Information. Pleasure. What we want and desire is primary. The other beyond ourselves does not matter and has no ethical standing.

Billat is not some French aberration to humanity. She is actually just a mouthpiece for what the dominant values and culture of our world, even of too many Christian circles, have long been. The possibility, for example, that there might be a moral dimension to how animals are raised for our consumption clearly doesn’t enter her mind. What matters is whether our needs are being met and whether we are achieving glory.

By contrast, Robert Marchand is remarkable for the condition of his heart.

Of course, I don’t mean just his physical heart that enabled him to put on another inspiring bicycle performance at an advanced age. I also use “heart” in the way the Bible often does – the center from which our will, emotions, desires, and thoughts are generated.

As we grow older, layers of rationalizations and justifications tend to build up on our hearts like barnacles on a ship. In the process, we lose the ability to respond to people and life around us out of simple love and kindness that is, in God’s original framework, what life is all about.

At 105 years, Marchand is still able to respond with a pure heart to new information about the impact of his choices on life around him. We don’t know how he learned about how farm animals are being routinely treated. But we do know that once the information entered his mind, his heart would not let him ignore the ethical implications. He changed a habit of his long life to maintain the integrity of his values.

What is interesting, too, is how Marchand’s character is both strong in its matter-of-fact compassion and its matter-of-fact determination to do great things with fearless tenacity and pluck. We see that in his performance, which clearly came out of a commitment to daily habits of exercise, good diet, and sleep. We also hear it when he says, “I’m now waiting for a rival.”

We tend to assume that a good-hearted, whole-hearted person will be a gentle, never-hurt-a-fly wallflower. This isn’t necessarily so. Vigor, sense of purpose, and energy are part and parcel of hearts that are fully alive.

We are meant to have strength-filled love and love-filled strength.

Robert Marchand gives us a sense of what that looks like. May we, with God’s help, come to have hearts like that, too.

 

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Wendell Berry writes of this concept:

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.