A friend shared an article with me that reports an increase in the number of Americans 34 years old and younger who identified themselves as principal farm operators, up 11% from 2007 to 2012. In that same period, however, the average age of all Americans who identify themselves as full-time farmers rose from age 54 to 57. The number of farmers in America continues to shrink.
The answer of industrial agriculture to the shrinking farm population is to increase productivity of those who remain by adding crop acreage, enlarging equipment to cover more ground, improving technology used on the farm, developing more potent chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and of course using genetically modified seed. In addition to all the expense and obvious side-effects accompanying these methods, every time a farmer quits farming the distance our food travels before we eat it increases. A study by Ken Meter underwritten by the The Food Bank of North Alabama found that the food we purchase in our region travels an average distance of 1300 miles. The farmer’s profit margin decreases with every additional mile his or her produce has to travel. It is little wonder so few Americans aspire to be farmers in this system.
There is hope and an alternative answer to this food and farm crisis. It does not require increasing acreage but rather reviving the small scale farm. With U.S. farm land purchase prices averaging over $4000 an acre, many with a desire and passion to farm cannot afford it. Therefore they find other employment. If farming on a small-scale were profitable, many more young Americans would pursue it. I have good news. Farming on a small-scale is sustainable and profitable, or at least it can be. A new agrarian movement is proving the pundits who say farmers have to get-big-or-get-out of farming wrong.
Here is where the church comes in. My colleague Thomas Henderson, a fellow United Methodist elder currently in Logansport, Indiana, preaches that sustainability is the theological issue of this century. He has dedicated his life and ministry to creating sustainable food systems. That is the subject of my book published earlier this year, The Land That Calls Me Home.
The Land That Calls Me Home investigates the disappearance of small-scale farms from rural America and casts a vision for the church’s role in their recovery. I trace the lack of concern the church has shown for the loss of small-scale farms over the past 75 years to a misinterpretation of scripture. Many erroneously equate farming with God’s curse on Adam for eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. That fallacy led to the church’s apathy toward the takeover of agriculture by corporate powers. 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 working the land to survive. My interpretation of the curse is that it is the separation of human beings from the soil. The more distance we create between ourselves and the soil, the less healthy the earth and our human bodies become. Restoring the viability of small-scale farming is a means of counteracting the curse on Adam and the soil.
The church accepted increased production of large-scale farms as a positive development. The negative impact of large-scale farming practices of using pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified organisms and chemical fertilizers, along with the effect of agricultural runoff on the soil, rivers, oceans, and on human health were seen as negligible compared to the promise of increased yield that could be used to eradicate global hunger. By accepting the corporate takeover of food production, the church agreed to the separation of the care of souls from the care of the earth and ceded earth and health care to government and free enterprise.
By confessing our contribution to the current farm crisis in America, church leaders can help restore the viability of small-scale farming in rural communities on the fringes of larger population centers. Urban and suburban churches can partner with area small-scale farmers to sell their produce in local farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) networks. Churches have the volunteer base, the parking lots, and the presence in their communities to organize, promote, and effectively run farmers markets, thus serving the farmers and their community while reconnecting people to the soil.
I am a suburban pastor and a farmer. I lived on and moved from a small-scale farm in my teens. Away from farming for twenty years, I began to farm again as a diversion from ministry in 1996. The plight of small-scale farmers has since become my passion in ministry. My greatest discovery 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 worked with lay leaders to establish a successful Farmers Market at Latham United Methodist Church in Huntsville, AL and I consult with other congregations seeking ways to support local agriculture.