Untamed Bovine

I have encountered cows with bad temperaments in my life, but none like the mama cow and two of her offspring that I finally caught, loaded, and sent to the sale at the end of the summer of 2014.  Before telling you about the worst ones I have encountered, let me tell you about some bad ones.

When I was growing up, Daddy had a Holstein milk cow we named Pansy. I was too young at the time to understand the irony of her name.  She was a good milker or Daddy would not have kept her, but she was mean.  Pansy was agreeable enough to enter the milking stall for the sweet feed she’d eat there. We milked the cows by hand back then. As soon as the bucket was almost full, Pansy would try her best to kick it over, or better yet kick one of us.  She could swish her tail like a whip and liked to slap us in the face, especially if her tail had manure on it.  She was so frequently successful at toppling the milk that bringing in a full bucket of clean milk from milking Pansy won the applause from the whole family at the breakfast table.

In 1997, my friend Keith Watkins introduced a Hereford Bull someone had given him to my herd of heifers that needed to be bred.  Keith told me the bull had charged him before, but I kept my distance and we got along OK in the open pasture.  One day we were tagging and vaccinating calves and  inoculating cows when I decided it was the Hereford bull’s time to be de-wormed .  At that very moment the bull decided he wasn’t getting a shot that day.  I picked up a 2 x 4 to persuade him and he shook his head and scratched the ground one time before he charged to persuade me to hurdle the fence and leave his comfort zone.  As I jumped the fence of the catch pen, I caught a metal post with the soft side of my thigh ripping the new pair of Carhartt work jeans I was wearing. I ended up getting a shot myself, a shot of the local anesthesia the doc injected before sewing up the gash in my leg.  I didn’t bring that bull back to breed my cows after that.

In 2006 the livestock yard owner Justin McCollum bought me a replacement heifer and dropped her off  in the feedlot so she’d get acclimated to the farm before I let her out in the big pasture with the rest of the herd.  Problem was, I had moved the herd to another pasture and this cow was alone with no other cows in sight for 24 to 36 hours in a strange feedlot and nothing but a water trough before my helper David went to check on her.  I’m not sure if she was wild on the farm where she was raised or if the isolation made here crazy.   When David opened the gate and walked in, she panicked, and rammed a bull panel fence of the feedlot repeatedly until she broke a post and fled through the pasture and through the pasture fence.  A neighbor called me two weeks after her great escape saying he found her hiding down in the woods beside his bottoms but inside his pasture fence.  I opened a gate between his pasture and mine and she eventually joined my herd.  Her flight zone was about 100 feet, so the first day she came into the feed lot and I was able to close the gate on her was the day she went on the trailer and to the sale.  A flighty cow spreads anxiety to the entire herd, and anxious cows and calves don’t grow as fast as calm ones.  She had to go.

I would prefer to ride bareback on any or all of the bovine described above than to be in the the same feedlot, not to mention a loading alley, with the cow, or any of her offspring, that  I recently sold.  I originally bought her after the April 27, 2011 tornadoes ripped through Alabama causing so much destruction.  The livestock buyer told me she came from the Phil Campbell area that was hit hard by the storms.  A lot of pasture fences were yanked out of the ground by the storm and livestock wandered for days while farmers tended to the loss of human life and loss of homes.  I surmise that this cow was traumatized by the storm which left her spooked.  She perceived the slightest movement as a threat and had a flight zone of 50 yards.  A farmer actually wanted to buy her yearling bull as a herd bull but the bull was as anxious as his mother.  The buyer had come twice to load him. The first time my farm helper David tried to load him, but the bull broke a feedlot fence post, ripped through a heavy gauge bull panel, and escaped.  The next time, I herded him into the alley leading to a waiting trailer.  Before he reached the trailer, he hurdled over a 6-foot high cattle panel and escaped.  The buyer decided then and there he did not want the bull even at a discounted price.

My helper said the wild mama cow and her calves would come into the feed lot if he filled feed troughs on both sides and then walked away from the area and hid.  I did that one day late this summer,and was able to crawl back unseen and close the gates on the trio I wanted gone.  I had reinforced the feedlot catch pen, added a row of 2×10″ boards to raise the height of the entire loading alley, and had six gates counting the head gate to close behind the cows as they advanced in the alley toward the trailer. I first loaded 2 calmer weaned calves I was ready to sell.  The yearling bull of the wild trio walked onto the trailer with them.  Eddie Borden, new owner of the livestock yard, had brought his heavy duty trailer that had 2 seciton gates and 3 separate sections. We closed the first 3 in the front section.  We tried to load the heifer calf next but she got out the alley side gate into a corral.  Next was wild mama herself.

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I got into the open catch pen with her and walked around the edge until she passed the pivot point of the crowding gate. I pushed it forward as fast as I could so the only way she could go was into the alley.  She ran all the way through the alley. I closed the alley gates behind her in case she decided to retreat. The last one I closed was the head gate of the working stall.  Wild mama took one look at the trailer, managed to turn around and charged the closed head gate. She was trapped and was bellowing loudly.  I stepped into the alley between her and the trailer. She was 30 feet away. She could feel me closing in on her, so she lowered her head and charged. I jumped onto a board I had nailed onto the loading alley fence high enough for the cow to run between my legs. My son thought she had crushed my legs against the alley fence, but her flesh and the heavy wire fence gave enough that I was not hurt but merely smeared with manure that she had accumulated on her sides from all her thrashing about. She ran under my legs and onto the trailer. I jumped down and closed the back gate of the trailer.  “She’s loaded,” I said. “Take her with you.” Eddie said, “Her calf would bring you $1000 tomorrow. You gonna leave her here?”  I agreed I wanted to send her calf too, so we had to move wild mama up a section in the trailer so we could load her calf in the back.  That would have been no problem, but by this time wild mama was turning in circles counter clockwise throwing herself against the steel rails of the trailer sides and back gate. The gate opened counter clockwise too so we were unable to open it.  We finally provoked the cow to start turning clockwise and when she was closest to the hinge side of the gate we opened it enough for her to squeeze around the latch end of the gate and advance into the middle section, bawling and bellowing and foaming at the mouth as she did.  Eddie pushed the gate.  My son was outside the trailer on the latch side and he locked it tight.  Getting the smaller calf in after that was a cinch.

Eddie said after we had them all loaded, “I’m gonna kill her.”  I said, “Good. How much you gonna pay me before you kill her?” He estimated she’d bring $1400, but she acted up at the sale the next day and brought $1150.  Considering that I would have paid someone that much to take her before sending her away, that was pretty good money.  I typically have some remorse when I send cattle to the sale, or at least some sentimental thoughts about having enjoyed interactions with those that are leaving.  Not with this trio.

Handling bad tempered cattle gets my adrenaline flowing and creates excitement in farming, but I can tell you one thing for sure: I will personally screen all the cows that come to my pasture from now on.  Flighty, ill-tempered, mean cows need not apply.

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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.

Side Dressing: A Group Study Resource for The Land That Calls Me Home

Available September 15, 2014!

I was blessed to publish The Land That Calls Me Home in April of 2014.  Many who have read it engaged me in conversation through personal correspondence and social media. They shared invaluable experiences, insights, and challenges related to the church’s role in the loss and recovery of the health of agriculture. Inspired by the conversations the book sparked, and urged by pastors and church leaders who inquired about using the book for small-group study, I began to develop a new tool to guide small groups in reflection, prayer, and action to address the disappearance of small-scale farms from rural America.

The tool is called Side Dressing: A Group Study Resource for The Land That Calls Me Home.  It is a 50-page workbook organized around the 16 chapters of the book.  Side Dressing will stimulate conversation in your small-group that brings home the tragic cost of the disappearance of small-scale farms and how decisions we make every day impact the hope and difficulty of their revival.  Side Dressing is a prayer-centered resource that leads to deeper understanding of and care for the people who farm and for the amazing land and its resources through which God created and continues to create life.  Order copies today for every member of your small-group through Amazon and Createspace for $4 each.

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Side Dressing is the companion group study manual for The Land That Calls Me Home

The Land That Calls Me Home is available through Amazon and Createspace for $12 a copy.  The book casts a vision for the church to lead in a revival of small-scale farms and help restore their viability and place as the economic center of rural communities.  In analyzing the cause of the loss of small-scale farms, the book goes beyond naming the usual suspects of industrialization, agricultural policies, and corporations.   From my perspective as a pastor of forty years and a long-time student of theology and the Bible, I name two overlooked players in driving farmers away from the land: Theology and the Church.

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.

“In the past, the church celebrated the increased production of relatively cheap food resulting from the get big or get out approach to farming.  The surplus of food grown by big producers benefited the church food pantries and soup kitchens from which we feed the hungry and it boosted our efforts to combat world hunger’(p. 159).

By confessing our complicity in causing the current farm crisis in America and the expanding 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 effective Farmers Markets. They provide a service to the farmers and to their community while reconnecting people to the soil.

Expand the conversation in your church about buying more of the food you eat from local farmers, growing some of your own food, or becoming a small-scale farmer yourself. It is possible and critical for us to strengthen our local food supply, but it will require some difficult choices. We need each other to make these decisions, keep our commitments, and make local food options more available.  Use Side Dressing as a resource for your existing small-groups or organize a new small-group to study, pray over, and take action to advance the revival of small-scale farming in your community.

Redeeming the Dirt Conference Reflection

The Redeeming the Dirt Conference was held at Poplar Point Camp near Rockford, Alabama August 7-9, 2014.  Rockford is located in Coosa County on Highway 231 about twenty miles south of Sylacauga.  Coosa County borders Clay County where my farm is located, so I decided to sleep in my own bed in our home near the farm and commute to the conference.  One could easily assume that I heard about the Christian agriculture conference because of its proximity to my farm and my associations there.  I didn’t.  Another probable source of information would be my connections in the United Methodist Church in that area.  However, once I learned about the conference I contacted the district superintendent of the Southeast District that includes Rockford and informed him about it.  The conference was non-denominational so he, though interested, had not heard about it.  My knowledge of the event came by way of two men who are part of a network of Christian farmers and homesteaders.  Tony Konvalin of Kentucky contacted me after reading my book The Land That Calls Me Home and told me about Scott M. Terry, an organic dairy farmer in New York who hosts the Christian Farm and Homestead Radio program every Friday evening at 7:00 (central time) on blogtalk radio.  Scott invited me as a guest on his talk show in May to discuss topics addressed in my book.  They told me about Noah Sanders, his book Born Again Dirt, and the Redeeming the Dirt Conference he would host in August in Rockford, Alabama.   I registered for the event in June and protected the dates from a lot of competition so I could attend.

I arrived at the Conference earlier than most guests and was able to meet Noah and some of the conference presenters at registration.  Noah asked me to place copies of my book on the book table for conference attendees to purchase.  I had only packed about twenty books and they sold out rather quickly.  I was finally able to meet Tony Konvalin with whom I had corresponded through social media and on the radio program in May.  He only recently moved from California where he had been a church planter and pastor to Kentucky where he is developing a small farm with plans of farming full-time.  Tony has written a great review of the fellowship and teaching provided by the conference on his blog which you can read at http://www.cultivatedforgod.com/2014/08/thoughts-on-the-redeeming-the-dirt-conference/.  I will focus my remarks about the conference on relationships that were developed at the conference and some of the revelations God has given some faithful farmers who have a heart for Him, for the land, and for God’s people.

The first official conference event was the evening meal on Thursday, August 7.  There was wonderful conversation at the table with a variety of people, some of whom are interested in but have not yet found a way to start farming and others who have been farming sustainably on a small-to-large scale for years.   The first presenter I met was Jack Dody of Abundaculture who lives off the grid in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  He introduced me to the keynote speaker for the event, Brian Oldreive (pronounce ole-dreve) of Foundations for Farming and Crag Deall who works with Brian.  Both are farmers from Zimbabwe in Africa.  Other presenters whom I would meet later in the conference were Chuck Bentley of Crown Financial and a young farmer and entrepreneur Robert Bruce Davis who founded Agstrong that produces organic canola products.

On the first evening, I met fellow conference participants from Colorado, North Dakota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Zibabwe.  By the end of the conference, I had met more conference partiipants who had come from Oregon, Virginia, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Missiouri.  Over 75 adults registered for the event, and many of them were young, as in their twenties and thirties.  And they brought their children.

Following the opening meal, I participated in an inspiring time of worship.  It set the tone for the remainder of the conference.  This was not going to be an ordinary conference on agricultural methodology.  It was going to be a prayer filled event grounded in humble prayer and jubilant thanksgiving and praise to God.

Noah Brian and Craig
Noah Sanders, Crag Deall, and Brian Odreive

The theme of the conference was Farming to Glorify God.  The featured speaker was a man from Zimbabwe in Africa who founded an organization orginally called Farming God’s Way.  It has been renamed Foundations for Farming based on the scripture, “There is no other foundation but the one that has already been laid, Jesus Christ.”   I found Brian Oldreive to fulfill everything Noah Sanders wrote about him in the event description and more.  He is a native white African from Zimbabwe.  He has more than fifty years farming experience and is a deeply devoted follower of Christ.  Brian demonstrates what God can do through a farmer dedicated to Jesus.   Foundations for Farming is a discipleship based ministry that focuses on teaching the poor faithfulness with the land.  Over thirty years ago Brian made a commitment to glorify God through farming.  Following a conversation with his daughter who asked him why he grew tobacco since he taught her not to use it because it poisons the body, Brian spent many sleepless nights.  He prayed one night pledging he would never grow another leaf of tobacco if that is what God wanted from him.  A peace immediately came over him and he began growing wheat and maize instead.  Due to sandy soil, which is good for tobacco but not for wheat and maize, and as a result of two years of drought, he lost everything he owned. The Lord used this experience to humble him to a point where he cried out to the Lord for wisdom as he continued to be unprofitable even after taking over management of another farm.

The Lord began to show Brian some things about farming in nature.  As a result Brain practiced a few basic principles, e.g., zero tilling, heaving mulching, and frequent weeding done on time, to a high standard, with minimal wastefulness.  Brian Oldreive became the most successful farmer in Zimbabwe.   He won awards for his farm’s productivity. God then called Brian to teach what he had learned to the poor of Africa.  That is how Foundations for Farming was born.  In 2002, the economy and agriculture system of Zimbabwe collapsed due in part to the fast track land seizure of 9.23 million hectares of white-owned “commercial” farms by the government. Brian lost everything he owned again when the farm he managed was taken over.  Instead of reacting with anger, blame, or condemnation, Brian prayed to find what God wanted him to do.  The Lord led him to begin working full time on discipling the poor of Zimbabwe and Africa while he taught them the effective farming practices God had shown him and did so with a heart for Jesus. There was much skepticism about Brian’s methods, but as the government of Zimbabwe sought to rebuild the country’s food system, and nothing  they tried was working, some leaders began to notice that the only people growing enough food to feed themselves with surplus to sell were those who received training in Foundations for Farming.  As a result, Mr. Brian and his team were eventually asked to teach their program in the nation’s schools, agricultural colleges, police departments, prisons, and hospitals with full liberty to point to Jesus as the foundation of good agriculture. In Zimbabwe the Church is now leading the way in rebuilding the nation’s food production system on the principles of God’s Word.

I will conclude my remarks on the conference by describing what I saw in a 2 hour field trip to Sanders Farm that Noah and his wife have developed.  We saw a simple demonstration of the erosion caused by the conventional farming method of plowing deeply versus a zero till method of planting, and the difference in the erosion that results on bare ground compared to almost no erosion when the ground is heavily mulched. Seeing this demonstration made me want to park all my plows forever. I was not the only one who after seeing this demonstration concluded that God had indeed answered Brian’s prayer and led him to an understanding of a farming methodology that is in harmony with nature through which the poor and hungry can have the hope and joy of providing food for their families and with enough to sell at markets for a modest income.  Farming God’s way rather than through invasive human methods can feed the world.  This definitely has application in Zimbabwe where food productivity has declined drastically due to drought and erosion combined with conventional farming techniques.  It is also a way to rehabilitate the nutrient depleted soils resulting from years of conventional farming methods using chemicals and deep tilling methods in the United States.  It applies to the smallest garden and the largest field.

To find out more about Foundations for Farming and its impact on the land, in defeating hunger and poverty, and in making disciples of Jesus Christ, visit their website at http://www.foundationsforfarming.org/.

To Read or to Garden Is Not the Right Question

With deference to  all my dairy farming friends who have already finished milking by the time I get up in the morning, on most days I drink my first cup of coffee at 5:00 a.m.  After morning devotional, I face the decison of whether to read an article or chapter in a book or to go outside and garden.  This is  frequently a tough dilemma during the hot summer months when vegetables are coming in and the soil is thirsty for water and the plants and blooms hungry for fertilizer.  From late June until mid-August, gardening is both urgent and important.  Reading is important all the time but at harvest time it usually ranks lower on the urgent scale than gardening.

2014-07-23 09.02.20I’ve tried gardening and reading at the same time by listening to books on my smart phone.  The result was that I was a dumber reader and a dumber gardener than I would have been had I been paying full attention to one or the other.  I can water the garden effectively enough while listening to a book, but try listening to a book when you are weeding or reaching for that ripe tomato in the center of a raised bed or spreading compost or mulch and you are likely to plant your earphones in the soil.

Being a fairly literate man with a job that requires reading numerous books and articles to stay  on the cutting edge of ministry, I could end my dilemma by opting out of gardening altogether.  I could buy all my food from farmers markets, grocery stores, and restaurants.  That appears to be the answer in the global community where specialization is touted as the most efficient and intelligent way to live.  You grow my food and I will study the Bible and theology and tell you what to believe about God.

If you think  that last sentence sounded askew or flat wrong, I am glad.  You have not farmed out to me the job of deciding what you will believe in spite of my credentials as a preacher and teacher of the Bible and theology.  Why then would I farm out to food experts the job of growing, processing, cooking, and even serving the food I eat?  It is no more the job of the “food industry” to feed you and me than it is the job of “preachers” to tell you what to believe about God.

Can experts in the food industry inform us about food?  Heavens yes!  They work with food a lot and should have learned a thing or two about it.  But do not, I repeat do not, accept what the food industry tells you about what you should eat or how your food should be grown without challenging it and testing it yourself.

The same can be said about your beliefs.  Can preachers and theology teachers inform you about interpreting the scriptures accurately and determining beliefs that are revealed in scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified by personal experience, and confirmed by reason?  I hope to heaven we can.  But do not, I repeat, do not accept what preachers and teachers of theology tell you is right belief without challenging it and testing it yourself.

I am making a case here for you to be a reader and for you to be a gardener whether you are rural, urban, or suburban, and regardless of your day job.  Do not farm out your faith and do not farm out your nutrition to someone else.  Materially participate in both so that you read and pray as well as listen to sermons and lessons as you establish and grow your faith; and so that you will also plant,  cultivate, harvest, and cook as well as buy food from others and occasionally go out to eat.

Remember that being “literate” is a fairly modern concept, that books were once a rarity and the printed word scarce.  Were people dumb before they were literate?  Heavens no.  Many were knowledgeale and wise because they were observant.  They paid attention and learned much about God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer from gardening and farming to feed their households.  That kind of visceral knowledge comes from engagement rather than book learning.  As we advance, may we reclaim the knowledge that can only be gained when we “farm the fertile land from which we were taken” (Geneis 3:23).

 

 

 

A Legacy of Loving the Land

06062014 Lavelle Reynolds
Lavelle Reynolds. A photo taken June 6, 2014, shortly before Lavelle turned 100 years old.

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19, King James Version).

I read this verse in the flyleaf of Daddy’s Bible in 1972 when I had borrowed it to prepare my first sermon.  I did not know nearly enough about the meaning of that verse to preach on it, so I prepared and preached a sermon on why bad things happen to good people instead, based on Luke 13:1-5.   I did not know enough to preach on that topic either, but at least I told folks what Jesus said about it and hope the Holy Spirit gave hearers understanding beyond my own.  As for Genesis 3:19, I asked Daddy why he had written part of God’s curse on Adam for eating the forbidden fruit in the flyleaf of his Bible.  I tell this story in chapter  11 of my book, The Land That Calls Me Home.  His answer was that that these words were spoken by God, and when God’s Word is obeyed it brings blessing.

Hughey Lavelle Reynolds is now 100 years old.  We celebrated his birthday last month.  He was born at home on June 23, 1914,  to Thomas Hughey and Inas Octavia Whatley Reynolds in  Barfield, Alabama, an unincorporated community near Lineville, AL.   I give you those details to underscore the agrarian legacy they passed down to their namesake.   Farming was the only way of life my grandparents knew.  However, in 1920, Granddaddy Reynolds took a job with the railroad and moved the family five miles into the town of Lineville within walking distance of the Depot.  The Great Depression would soon follow.  Granddaddy had one of the few paying jobs during the Depression because the trains had to run.  It was with the income he still had while many others lost everything that Thomas Hughey Reynolds purchased 113 acres of land in the 1930’s.  Half of that land is part of the 85 acre farm my wife and I own today.  The other half is part my late brother Rod’s estate.

Fast forward to the 1940’s.  Daddy’s attempt to volunteer for the Army during WWII failed.  The medical examiner detected a heart murmur and issued him a medical deferment.  I am not sure what the examiner heard, but Daddy’s heart at 100 seems to be fine.  Nonetheless, Daddy stayed home and started a “farm custom work” business.  He turned a lot of terraces on Clay County hillsides and prepared a lot of ground for crops on farms left to wives and mothers of men away at war.  It was then that Daddy bought his first tractor, a John Deere B.  He also worked for the local John Deere dealer, the Lineville Gin and Fertilizer Company, and became a top notch tractor mechanic.  Daddy’s brother, Thelson, served in the European Theater as a member of the Army’s Military Police.  He wrote home to his wife and mother almost daily.  Weeks passed and neither heard a word from him.

Grandmother Reynolds was worried sick, literally.  Someone suggested that she travel fifteen miles south to the Clay County, Alabama community of Millerville to visit Mrs. Rena Teel. Some people called Mrs. Teel a fortune teller.  She claimed she had the gift of discernment by which she was able to determine answers to quandaries and mysteries no one else could solve.  Grandmother asked Mrs. Teel if Thelson  was alive.  She assured her he was alive, although he had suffered an injury, and would return home safely.  She also told Grandmother something Grandmother had not asked.  She told her that her family owned a piece of property that would one day be very valuable.

When I first heard that story in the 1950’s, I would take a wood frame with a wire mesh bottom in it to the farm to pan for gold in the branches and creeks there.  I was sure I was going to find gold and be rich one day. When I got old enough to help Daddy with the farm chores of stringing barbed wire fences and working the cattle or loading the calves to send them to the sale or cutting and baling hay, I began to form a new theory about the value of the land my family owned.  In the 1990’s, when part of that farm became mine, I abandoned my childhood wish that there would be gold in the streams or beneath the soil’s surface on the farm.  I was beginning to learn that the dirt itself was the source of life not only for the pine and hardwood trees and the forages of the pastures where the cows graze, but also for me.

Like the majority of children born into agrarian families in the mid-to-late twentieth century, I left our rural home and farm, obtained a college education, and found employment in larger and larger cities.  The farm on which I was raised was a distant and sometimes suppressed memory.   One might call the decision of Thomas Hughey Reynolds in the 1920’s to take a job with the railroad fortuitous. It enabled him to purchase the land that was passed down to a grandson he never knew (he died 9 years before my birth).  I call the decision providential, for through it and subsequent decisions, by divine  grace, God has called me back to the land, to love it and value it and honor it as my father did when he plowed the ground in the sweat of his face and penned Genesis 3:19 in the flyleaf of his Bible.

Mrs. Teel’s prediction has already come true.  I have found the treasure of the land in the form of the life-giving soil that covers every inch of it. I have heard God’s Word speaking to me through that ground calling me back home, actually calling a generation back, to the land, to care for it, to till it, and to receive the life that God created the land to provide.  Stake your claim on whatever piece of land you have, however small it may be, and discover the same treasure of life in it.

2014-05-31 14.18.18
My grandson showing me his garden during his first birthday celebration.

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