When I ponder why anyone would spend the money or time to read my book, The Land That Calls Me Home, I am prone by southern humility or religious training to think small. I tell myself, “It’s an inexpensive book and it’s a fast read, written in rather large print with 1.5 line spacing.” I then check myself, repent of my false humility, and reaffirm the relevance and importance of the subject that the book addresses and the urgency to make others aware of it.
In the book, I investigate the disappearance of small-scale farms from rural America. Have you stopped to think why the farms you saw or perhaps lived on in your childhood have disappeared? In the book I also cast a vision for the church to lead in a revival of small farms. By revival I do not mean a week-long meeting celebrating what small farms used to be. I mean restoring the viability and strength of small-scale farms to be the economic center of rural communities that they once were. The book goes beyond naming the usual suspects of industrialization, agricultural policies, and corporations most often blamed or credited with orchestrating the mass exodus of farmers from rural America. Their contributions are well documented. From my perspective as a pastor of forty years and a long-time student of theology and the Bible, I bring to light two overlooked players in driving farmers away from the land: Theology and the Church.
In a chapter titled “Dirt Farmers at Work and at Prayer,” I describe how a misinterpretation of scripture erroneously equates farming with God’s curse on Adam for eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. That fallacy lies at the root of the uncontested takeover of agriculture by corporate powers. That takeover centralized farming so that today a few giant corporations monopolize global farm markets and only one-percent of all Americans farm full time. Globalizing farming promised to free the masses from the curse of having to work the land to survive. I debunk the portrayal of tilling the soil as a curse and rather interpret the curse as the separation of human beings from the soil. I allowed myself to be separated from it and so did you, unless you still farm on a small-enough scale that requires you to have direct and daily contact with the soil. I believe that the more distance we allow between ourselves and the soil, the less healthy the earth and our human bodies become. Therefore, I conclude that restoring the viability of small-scale farming is a means of turning the curse on Adam and the soil into a blessing by obeying God’s instructions to Adam to till the soil and harvest food grown from it.
My contention is that the church has been an accomplice to the theft of agriculture from the people and forcing their mass migration from rural farmsteads to suburbs and cities. Part of our complicity in this theft occurred because we were so enamored by the increase in productivity of those who were left to farm on a large scale. We saw the increase of their productivity as a positive development to be celebrated. We were blinded to the negative impact of the practices of large-scale farming with pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified organisms (altered seed), and chemical fertilizers. We believed the propaganda that no long-term negative effects were caused by these practices while agricultural runoff on the soil, rivers, and oceans increased. When we learned of these environmental impacts, we agreed with the politicians who said those effects were negligible compared to the promise of increased yield that could be used to eradicate global hunger. And we in the church failed to see, or ignored the corporate greed that has led global food distributors to stockpile food while millions die of malnutrition annually. When a few socially conscious protesters did speak out about these issues, corporate powers allied with evangelical pundits who declared such issues to be off limits to the church that ought to concentrate on saving souls, not the environment. The church separated the care of souls from the care of the earth and ceded earth and health care to government and free enterprise. In shrinking rural communities, decimated by the migration of farmers to the city, a few dwindling churches have remained open long enough to care for the lingering souls and to bury the dead. For these reasons and others cited in the book, I believe the church has failed to resist the powers and principalities that have separated human beings from the life-giving soil from which God created human life and with which God intends to bless human beings in the future.
By confessing our complicity in causing the current farm crisis in America and hunger, environmental, and economic crisis worldwide, church leaders can act to reverse much of the damage that has been done. With renewed vision of God’s intention to redeem creation along with human souls (Romans 8:18-25), the church can help restore the viability of small-scale farming in rural communities on the fringes of larger population centers. Churches can serve as network hubs for farmers, whose crops are too small to win contracts with large grocery chains, to sell their produce in local Farmers Markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) networks. Churches that catch the vision to support local agriculture have the volunteer base, the parking lots, and the presence in their communities to organize and run an effective Farmers Markets. They provide a service to the farmers and to their community while reconnecting people to the soil.
I have researched the loss and revival of small-scale farming from the standpoint of a pastor and a farmer. I lived on and moved from a small-scale farm as a youth and have served in full-time pastoral ministry forty years, including the last twenty years when I have worked to revive and grow my own family farm. My greatest discovery in seeking to make farming viable has been that the small-scale farm’s best chance of financial solvency is having adequate local markets to sell farm products, markets which churches in population centers are ideally suited to provide. I have worked with lay leaders at Latham United Methodist Church, where I am in my ninth year as pastor, to establish a successful Farmers Market. I have also served as consultant to other congregations to identify or design ways they could support local agriculture.
If The Land That Calls Me Home causes even one of you who reads it be more aware of the urgency to revive local, small-scale farms and therefore leads you to change your food-buying habits to preference locally grown over globally exported food, then I will know that the book will have been worth far more than you paid for it and the time you spent reading it. If the book inspires only one of you who reads it to help organize a farmers market in your own church and create relationships between local farmers who grow food and urban or suburban consumers who eat it, then every minute and hour and day I spent writing and rewriting the words in this book will change from chronos time to kairos time, eternal time. If by reading this book, even one of you takes steps to change your lifestyle and start growing some of the food you and your household eat or, more radically, change your vocation and start farming to grow food to sell in local markets to your neighbors, then I will know that writing this book was nothing short of work done in partnership with God.