Category Archives: environmentalism

Why Farms Are the Church’s Business

In a speech given during his visit to the United States, Pope Francis named climate change as an urgent and critical issue for world leaders to acknowledge and take action to stop.  One politician who took issue with the Pope’s statement was Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who claims to be a devout Catholic and to love Pope Francis. “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science,” Santorum said on a  Philadelphia radio program. “We probably are better off leaving science to the scientists, and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.” He said further, “I’ve said this to the Catholic bishops many times — when they get involved in agriculture policy, or things like that, that are really outside of the scope of what the Church’s main message is, that we’re better off sticking to the things that are really the core teachings of the Church as opposed to getting involved in every other kind of issue that happens to be popular at the time.”  Santorum has plenty company among politicians, including Democrats, who want to confine religion to the realm of the spiritual that has nothing to say about the physical or material world.

Someone needed to tell the writers of the Bible that the spiritual and physical world are separate and that one has nothing significant to contribute to the other.  Using the science of their day, the Biblical writers related spiritual and eternal truths to all facets of physical and temporal life as they knew it.  The science of their day was limited to their available tools and methods of discovery.  No one at the time had disproved that the earth was a flat landmass floating on the underworld, that the sky was a dome separating heaven from earth, and that the earth and underworld were supported by pillars. Many biblical passages assume this view of the world limited to what is seen with the unaided physical eyes of observers who had no access to the world beyond their locale.

As science has advanced to further clarify and make discoveries about many facets of physical and temporal life, spiritual and eternal truths relate no less than before to the expanded and more detailed understanding of our world that science presents.   Santorum is right when he says the church has gotten it wrong a few times when it comes to science.  When the church has held to  cosmologies and theories of creation that ignored or denied the findings of science, we have driven a larger wedge between science and religion and made the church’s message less believable.   As a Jesuit priest, Pope Francis studied science extensively and takes the findings of science seriously.

The debate among politicians is really over whose science to believe regarding climate change, the science underwritten by multinational corporations and billionaires whose industries contribute significantly to air and water pollution, or science that is dependent on no funding from those corporations.   We could start by identifying which politicians are receiving campaign contributions from the same corporate giants that are funding the research on climate change.  My observation is that those politicians embrace the scientific research espoused by their corporate benefactors, which is the same thing the church has done when we “have gotten it wrong a few times on science”: we rejected the science that challenged our world view and threatened our source of income.

I went out on a limb a year and a half ago when I published a book titled The Land That Calls Me Home: Connecting God’s People to God’s Land through God’s Church.   I base claims in that book on biblical principles and on science that is not beholden to multinational corporations that support and profit from large scale farming and the billions in U.S. taxes funneled through farm subsidies that keep them viable. In one 29 page chapter of the book titled “Why Farms Are the Church’s Business,” I take on the challenge like the one Rick Santorum made to the Pope’s agenda. We need leaders in the church and in Washington who are unafraid to address the health of this planet God created not merely from a political and economic perspective but from a theological, moral, social, and an objective scientific perspective as well.  If they lose funding for it, so what? They are doing what is right.  One much shorter chapter in the book titled “Is the Empire Striking Back or Listening” addresses efforts by corporate industrial agricultural to hijack the small but rapidly growing locally grown and agrarian movements while still advancing the science that says farmers must farm on a large scale to supply the global market if they want to survive

BuyFresh

It is time for moral discourse in all our communities about issues related to farming, the soil, and yes, all the environment as well as the economy. We have previously left these topics to politicians.  My book is an invitation to start or advance that conversation between you and members of your community, with me, and nationwide through social networking.  You can purchase The Land That Calls Me Home on Amazon. The paperback is $11 and the Kindle version $7.  Visit my facebook page devoted to the promotion of small-scale farming and conversation about issues related to farming for local consumption and let me hear your views and concerns on this topic.

Itinerating

I am moving.  Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett has appointed me to become the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Decatur, Alabama.  My first Sunday there will be June 14, 2015.  See more about this appointment in the Decatur First UMC newsletter, Tidings of Joy.  I published The Land That Calls Me Home one year ago in MarchThe book title led many to think I was on my way as quickly as possible to my beloved farm in Lineville, Alabama where I lived as a child.  A large portion of the farm Sandy and I own today was part of the Reynolds family farm in Lineville.  I raise cattle on that farm and my 101 year old father is in the nursing home close to it.  I travel to Lineville twice a month and spend at least some of my vacation and many holidays there.

When some of my friends and church members heard that I had been appointed to Decatur First, they told me they were disappointed for me because they had hoped the Bishop would move me closer to my farm.  Daddy has called twice to ask how this move will affect my ability to visit him and serve as his power of attorney. Decatur First is 31 miles farther away from Lineville than Latham in Huntsville, but the travel time will be 20 minutes less because I will now drive most of the way on the interstate.  The travel time is 2 hours 40 minutes instead of 3 hours.

Pastoral appointments in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church are made in a closed session between the bishop and the eight members of her cabinet. One of those members is my district superintendent who represented me.  He had met with me and had my input but was not allowed to disclose to me specific churches for which I was being considered.  From what I have learned about the process, I was nominated for several positions, some of which would have taken me closer to the farm and my father and some farther away.  I can tell you that when I gave my district superintendent my priorities, moving closer to the farm was not one of them.

My first priority was and is to be a good match for the people I will serve.  I believe this match is made when both the pastor and the church listen to and respect the life stories and faith journeys of the other. We will find our sweet spot where our stories and journeys intersect.  There we will grow together and do our part of ushering God’s Kingdom into our community and world.

My second priority was and is to allow Sandy to continue her work in Huntsville until she is ready to retire.  We were willing to live apart, as some of our pastors and superintendents do now, if there was no appointment within commuting distance for her that met our first priority (above). Decatur is within commuting distance.

My third priority was and is to be accessible and available to my family.  Sandy and I have children and grandchildren in Daphne, 350 miles from Huntsville, and my father still lives in Lineville.  Of course this priority would become #1 if there was an emergency. We have had to accept that under normal conditions, being with family will require travel in order to honor our first two priorities.

2012-09-29 16.42.34Returning to live at or near the farm before I retire was not one of my priorities.  My ideal world would be where churches I could most effectively serve, Sandy’s work, my children and grandchildren, my father, and our farm and house on the lake were all in one place.  That place is the Garden of Eden where no one lives anymore.  In The Land That Calls Me Home, nostalgia for the Eden of my childhood does ooze out in a few places.  The thrust of the book, however, is toward the future and not the past.  Overcoming our estrangement from the soil is a requirement for living in the future Kingdom of God, and that starts where you and I live right now.  For me overcoming estrangement from the soil in Decatur will include gardening wherever I can, in raised beds or containers in my backyard or with others in a community garden.

On a larger scale, overcoming estrangement from the soil
will include finding ways for the church to engage in ministries that help them and others reconnect with the soil.  In my present appointment, I was in my 6th year when a few members helped me grow vegetables at a neighboring church garden for CASA, a ministry assisting low income seniors.  I was in my 8th y2014-05-13 15.29.20ear when Latham started a Farmers Market that will continue to connect city dwellers and small-scale farmers in the area long after I am gone.

How we will restore a healthy relationship between people and the good, life-giving earth while I am in Decatur, I do not yet know.  I do know that we will to the extent that we experience more fully the Kingdom of God on earth.  And that is certainly the hope and prayer I have for my ministry with the people of Decatur First UMC.  They and I will fulfill God’s call on our lives as we use the influence we have as God’s church in this place to impact the planet by bringing the Kingdom of God more fully upon it.  The day will come for me to return to the farm. Today the fields are in Decatur ready for planting, ready for cultivating, ready for God to give the growth until the harvest.

One Year Later

The_Land_That_Calls__Cover_for_KindleThe Land That Calls Me Home rolled off the press one year ago this week on March 25.   I published it independently through Creaetespace, an Amazon company.  I was also in charge of publicizing the release of the book.  I reached out through social media and email to friends, family members, ministry colleagues, church members, locally grown food advocates, high school and college classmates, and writers I knew to promote the book.  I started a blog and a Facebook page associated with the book to promote growing your own food and buying locally to support area farmers.  The initial response was favorable.  A couple hundred books sold in a few weeks through Amazon and personal sales.   I ran out of books a couple of times at special events where I had the opportunity to sell them.

Between my full-time work of pastoral ministry and farming and gardening as much and often as I could, I had limited time to promote the book. Sales plateaued and declined.  When interested friends would ask me how the book was selling I told them, “As well as I promote it.”  I spent hundreds of hours over a five year period developing the book that finally went to press after more edits than I cared to count.  I was tired of writing and relieved to finally tell the publisher to print the book for distribution and make it available on Kindle.  But the real work for which I was not prepared was promoting the book past the initial three-month wave of interest.  I have come to understand why Henry Ford said that trying to save money by cutting advertising is like trying to save time by turning back the clock.

In his books Tribes and The Icarus Deception, bestselling author Seth Godin stresses the importance of targeting the market for your product and message.  General publicity is no better than publicity to the wrong market.  I have made several friends over the years through cattle farming who are into industrial farming.  Because they know me, they bought the book.  They read enough to know that it was not for them but advocated an alternative to the way they farm.  They did not tell their friends to buy it.  The best advertisers for the book have been people who bought it, resonated with the stories and ideas in it, were helped or encouraged by it, and who told their friends about it and reached out to network with me because we are espousing similar or compatible ideas.

The tribes I have connected with most are agrarians, churched agrarians, and more specifically evangelical churched agrarians.  I am a mainline churched agrarian, which sets me on the edge of the tribe that has embraced my book, the way of life I advocate, and me the most.  I have yet to find evidence of many mainline churched agrarians, which leads me to conclude that almost all farmers left in my own denomination are still pursuing and espousing industrial agriculture.  The book I wrote challenges the core assumptions of industrial agriculture, so I surmise that I am at best a fugitive of their tribe, and at worst a turncoat.  I realize too that any big money from farming is derived from industrial agriculture, although most of it is enjoyed not by the farmers themselves but by the big corporations that supply equipment and chemicals to large-scale farmers. None of these have been big fans of my book or of my challenging the mainline church to promote local small-scale farm sales rather than the global food market.

2013-06-11 15.21.17

I do still hold to the hope that a growing number of restless souls within the mainline church will get it that the way we on earth farm in the future has to change for the sake of our planet and its inhabitants. When they do, the message of my book to the church will have been heard.  If in the next generation we do not reduce the distance between the people of earth and the soil, a distance created through my generation’s infatuation with the industrialization of agriculture, the words of Lamentations 4:9 will become our reality: “Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field.” 

There is irony here that I address in The Land That Calls Me Home.  At first glance, the industrialization of farming appears to be the answer to increasing the food supply. Farmers can farm larger tracts of land with heavier modern equipment and crop yield has increased exponentially since the advent of chemical fertilizer.  Genetically modified seed for row crop production and the widespread use of antibiotics and hormones that cause livestock and poultry to grow bigger faster are putting millions of tons more food on supermarket shelves than we would have without them.  There is a hidden price we are paying now for these practices and that generations after us will pay in the diminished quality of our soil, water, and physical health.  The way we farm now is not really efficient because it is not sustainable.  There is another way that requires some changes in the way we live, what we eat, and how we relate to the soil.  For more on the these topics, read The Land That Calls Me Home available in print and on Kindle through Amazon.

Answering the Farm and Food Crisis of This Century

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.

An “ist” Label Worth Claiming

I am a lifelong and third generation Methodist. Although the name Methodist has an intriguing and compelling history, that is not the topic of this blog.  Suffice it to say that although all Methodists have much in common, no two Methodists are exactly alike.  I want to address instead a word denoting a sacred trust that becomes a hot button political issue once “ist” is added to it. Add “ist” to the word environment and it becomes political fodder for partisan talk show hosts whose influence over the opinion of your neighbor makes him or her a critic and skeptic toward all things environmental.  Advocate and care for the environment and an outspoken neigbor will likely assume you agree with every word of Al Gore’s book on global warming even though neither you nor your neighbor has read a word of the book.  You’ve been pigeonholed.

Being raised on a small-scale farm in the 1950s and 60s did not automatically make me a friend of the environment.  We had practices as damaging to the earth, atmosphere, and streams as our large-scale farm neighbors.  We merely abused a smaller land mass.  We stored tractor fuel in an underground tank and frequently spilled it on the ground filling the tractors. We treated fence posts with (now) toxic creosote that we stored in 55 gallon drums. We used pecticides on our crops at a time when a main ingredient was the carsinogen DDT.  We burned off fields and forestland regularly.  We allowed our cattle free access to streams that ran through our pasture.   Methane emissions from the stockpiled cow manure at the dairy barn contributed more than a little carbon to the atmosphere.  Some of the envirnomental damage we did resulted from common and accepted practices of the times.  Some resulted from our using older euipment that was not as environmentally friendly as the newer models.  Complying with new environmental standards cost money.

I did not compose the list of environmentally unfriendly practices we engaged in to make this point, but with a couple exceptions the entire list resulted from industrial farming metods that we had incorporated on our small-scale farm.  Burning off cropland and forests rather than allowing organic matter to form mulch for future growth was never a good practice in spite of assumed benefits of ridding the area of unwanted insects and stimulating the growth of pine trees.  Even stockpiling cow manure outside the dairy barn changed with the introduction of chemical fertilizers. Until we started buying the then cheap chemical fertilizers (cost set by pertroleum prices), the  manure was spread on our pastures and fields.  More carbon went back into the ground and less in the air.

What this tells me, in my grandmother’s words, is that there is more than one way to skin a cat.  Instead of having to buy the ever more expensive equiment and chemicals to comply with the ever increasing environmental standards,  farming on a small-scale allows me to incorporate tools and practices used prior to the industrialization of farming and care for the environment at the same time.  Are they old-fashioned, slow, and do they limit the scale of my farming opration and the output of the farm?  Of course they are and do.  They also do not profit me at the expense of the health of the present generation or damage and exhaust the non-renewable natural resources of the earth and its atmosphere for generations to come.

horse drawn planter
Here’s a planter my dad owned and loaned to a farmer who still plowed with a mule. It’s been in my shed since we picked it up from the farmer’s widow in 2002.

Many of the farm praticies I refer to, like plowing with a  horse, require skills I never acquired and may never learn to do efficiently enough to farm solely with them.  In the meantime, a commitment to farm on a small-scale with the modest equipment I have rather than expand my farming operation to the capacity that larger, more modern equipment allows is a commitment to do less harm to the environment rather than more without allowing stricter environmental standards to drive me out of farming altogether because of equiment and chemical costs.

If this commitment to small-scale farming makes me an environmentalist, then I say the same thing about that label as I do about the Methodist name.  All envionmentalists have some things in common, but no two environmentalists are alike.  My form of environmentalism recognizes that God is the creator and creation is a sacred trust of which I am a steward.  Returning the piece of earth and its surroundings over which I have charge to its Maker and mine in an improved rather than a depleted state when my time here is over will be a final measure of my faithfulness.