I recently wrote an article for Relevant Magazine. The piece dealt with “food ethics,” specifically how we as human beings have become disconnected from the soil (our origins – see Genesis 1) and from our food (which comes from the soil). You can find the July/August issue here. My article is titled “Slow, Local, Sustainable.” It’s on pages 38-41.
I interviewed my personal hero – Joel Salatin – along with a couple of other folks who are playing important roles in the new food movement – that which pursues food grown locally, grown sustainably, grown without chemicals and pesticides, and grown in a way that enriches God’s earth.
However, because of the constraints of publication, I had a word limit on the article (yes, it was miserable, but somehow I managed). So, the interviews were trimmed down. Sad.
But I have brought them here. [cue triumphant music] The full interviews. Not to be found anywhere else on the entire Internet (and not to be duplicated without citation…at least link to this site). Here they are…
JOEL SALATIN – farmer, writer, philosopher, Jesus-follower, http://www.polyfacefarms.com
Q1 – How do “Christian” and “agrarian” make sense together?
The Bible is a real book written to real people in a real cultural context. The fact that it is centered in an agrarian model is significant. God made creation–the living, physical world. From the parables to the prophets, God uses agrarian metaphors to explain His interactions with people. He gave the Israelites a “gift of good land,” not a gift of chariots and cities and buildings. While I do not believe for a moment that cities are evil or urban dwelling is wrong, I do believe people divorced from agrarianism must struggle harder to appreciate the agrarian metaphors and their applications to our lives.
But beyond that, I think a Christian whose mind does not dwell on creation and the physical world is missing finding “how shall we then live?” as Francis Schaefer was prone to ask. St. Augustine’s duality in which spiritual is good and physical intrinsically evil could not have done more damage to the singleness of mind permeating Scripture. In God’s view, all is sacred. And so we humans are supposed to extend His redemptive work, begun in our own spiritual lives, to the visceral world around us. To say that what we see is either evil or amoral is to flee our responsibility. Noah brought animals into the ark, not dancing spirits.
To partake, viscerally, in the living world is to appreciate both the fragility and tenacity of life. Today, children who grow up never having tended a garden or an animal miss the traditional common sense and responsibility encouraged by agrarianism. Being responsible for something living infuses a person with awe. The closer we partake of the living world, whether it’s raising a baby calf or growing tomatoes, the more aware we are of the mystery and majesty of creation. That pushes us toward humility, and greater appreciation of an all-powerful divinity. That understanding, what Solomon calls the “fear of God” is the beginning of wisdom.
Q2 – What role do farming and food production play in an economy – from households (touching on the Greek root of the word) to local community economies to a nation’s economy?
That Christ would choose food (bread and wine) to commemorate His supreme sacrifice and keep alive His memory ’til He return illustrates the connection between food and everything else. Prince Charles says that a culture is defined by religion, architecture, and food. Two of those are religion and food. That they are linked is both Biblical and historical.
In order to give physical life, something must die. Whether it’s a cow or a carrot, something living must die, be masticated between your teeth, dissolved and gastronomically decompose in order to bring life. That is a profound connection: life requires death. But when we use the word sacrifice, we use it to describe the death of something noble. We don’t use it to describe the death of a murderer, for example. There, we say “good riddance.” We don’t call that a sacrifice. Only nobly lived lives can be a sacrifice. And so our culture and our economies become defined be the respect, the nobility, with which the physical is imbued prior to its pouring out, or sacrifice. Bringing sacredness to our world requires a nobility to a life lived in order that the death be sacrificial, and therefore meaningful.
Therefore animals and plants viewed as inanimate protoplasmic structures to be manipulated in a mechanistic fashion however cleverly hubris can imagine to manipulate them will not be imbued with nobility and honor in life. Their death, therefore, becomes meaningless drivel. If, however, we insure that the pig can express its pigness, or the tomato its tomatoness, then we do indeed infuse our culture, our economy, with sacrifice. And out of that comes fullness of life.
Q3 – Why is this cultural movement towards sustainable agriculture happening?
This movement is happening for a number of reasons. First, the industrial or mechanical system is fundamentally failing. New virulent diseases, soil loss, immune dysfunction, high energy costs, pathogenicity, and compromised nutrients all indicate the failure of the mechanical view toward life. As that view tries rescue through irradiation, cloning, transgenic modification and more toxic chemistry, creation rebels in the form of yet greater maladies: MRSA, Cdiff, Type II diabetes, childhood leukemia and others. Nature always bats last, and nature is coming to the plate. The industrial/mechanical view toward life is simply running out of answers.
Secondly, people are increasingly becoming aware of these issues and jumping off the ship. I think there is a direct link between the homeschooling movement and the current local economy movement (cottage industry, backyard gardens, local food, etc.). Once a person opts out of the overriding cultural paradigm and finds soul level satisfaction in that narrow way, he begins looking around for other alternative paths. The opt out mentality in education has spawned a whole host of people to look at opting out medically (i.e.chiropractic and homeopathy), in insurance, in recreations, investment, and food. A home centered life is perhaps one of the most revolutionary things an American family can do right now. And truly subversive. For several decades we have seen the gradual erosion of the home to a pit stop between what is truly important in life.
This is not by any means unique to the faith community. RADICAL HOMEMAKERS is a recent book that explains this quiet Wall Street subversive revolution occurring in homes across America. How many gadgets does a person need? How dependent on bar codes and crinkly packaging must be become before we materialize ourselves out of existence. More and more people are beginning to realize that enough is enough and it’s time to circle the wagons in our own homes, re-creating home as heart of the domestic economy–the family.
Third, what is driving this movement is a dawning epiphany that we cannot continue dumping toxicity willy nilly into our environment and our bodies while experiencing health. People are beginning to connect those dots between what we do, what we eat, and how we feel. And the world in which our grandchildren will grow up. Indeed, we are creating our landscape one bit at a time because food systems ultimately drive the entire land management protocol.
Q4 – How do urban Christians implement agrarianism? Do they have to move to the country? Can you be an agrarian and not grow/raise food?
Urban Christians need to make a sacred place for preserving and understanding our link to the ecological umbilical. While that does not necessarily require gardening, it does require thinking about and then acting on our dependency to an unseen world. For example, each double handful of healthy soil contains more living creatures than there are people on the face of the earth. From actinomycetes to earthworms, centipedes to azotobacter bacteria, the soil is the most vibrant relational community on earth. It is brimming with individuals, eating and being eaten, living, dying, birthing, marrying . . . okay, so I’m getting carried away. But the point is that everything we are, everything we see, is completely and utterly dependent on this unseen world.
Again, contemplate the profound implications of this thought: that everything we see is dependent on a world that we don’t see. So when’s the last time you asked your family: “What have we done today to respect and honor the earthworms?” When is the last time a business plan included “happy, dancing, healthy earthworms” as a necessary parameter to success? That the average family sits in their pew, memorizes the catechism, recites Bible verses, partakes of the sacraments, and never even contemplates the profound implications of their utter dependence on this unseen, unsung, unappreciated community exemplifies a schizophrenic duality that God abhors.
He who says the trees of the forest shall clap their hands, that the lilies of the field are more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory, that the sparrows are numbered, surely is interested in whether the earthworms are happy. And whether pigs are happy. As Father Andrew says, eating then becomes a moral act. And that is why the nonChristian community views Christians with contempt, charging hypocrisy, when it sees Christians stop off for Happy Meals on the way to a Right-to-Life rally. That is just as hard to reconcile as a tree-hugger or save-the-baby-whaler who promotes abortion. Duh?
The point is we need to think about what we can do to create sacredness in our landscape, via the food system. That may mean joining a CSA, or searching out and buying from farmers who do honor dancing earthworms. It doesn’t require growing your own food, but it does mean procuring and associating with food that is responsibly grown. And if I may be mischievous, let me say that if you have a couple of parakeets, get rid of them and get a couple of laying hens. They will be less noisy, eat all your kitchen scraps, and give you eggs to eat.
Q5 – How do you see the Food Safety Modernization Act affecting small farmers?
The Food Safety Modernization Act is another attempt by the consumer advocacy victimhood community to clean up a filthy food production system after the fact. It does not address farming, where the pathogenicity and low nutritive values begin. Ultimately, now culture and no food system can be any safer or wholesome than its soil health policy. For a complete answer to this question, read my book EVERYTHING I WANT TO DO IS ILLEGAL.
In a nutshell, food choice is ultimately about who owns the individual. If we are not free to have autonomy over our own bodies, than surely the freedom to own guns, worship, assemble, or speak are mute freedoms. If I don’t have the freedom to choose what to feed my 3 trillion-member intestinal bacterial community to give me the energy to go shoot, pray, and preach, what good are those freedoms? Thirty years ago, this was the same battle being fought over home schooling, when parents were being carted off to jail, children seized and placed in foster care, due to truancy violations. Fortunately, our culture saw fit to grant freedom in this instance.
Now the battle has moved onto an inquisition, fueled duplicitously by well-meaning consumer advocates who think the government is a dispassionate player. It is not. President Obama has just named Michael Tayler, the attorney whose 10-year stint at Monsanto shepherded transgenic modification onto the world stage, as the new food czar in the Food and Drug Administration. This is obscene. What kind of food will he promote? It certainly won’t be Aunt Matilda’s pickles, raw milk, or compost grown tomatoes. Empowered with new authority to enforce “science based” farming protocols, this act creates a written orthodoxy in the Church of Industrial Food. Inquisitors are and will be dispatched to root out all heretics who refuse to bow to Monsanto and credentialed scientists in the food police fraternity.
This is why it is incumbent on more and more of us to opt out. To return to indigenous, heritage-based orthodoxy, in which food production is a symbiotic, synergistic, relational, ecological, biological act. It is not sterile, test-tube, mechanical, or arrogant. It is time for the real priests to stand up before those who dare to nurture sacred food get put on the rack.
Q6 – Can words like “good” and “evil” be used when we talk about heated topics like industrial agriculture, organics, the USDA, the FDA, GMOs, local foods, farmers markets, etc?
Yes, I think good and evil are great words. When Monsanto releases life forms that God’s creative patterns did everything to enjoin into the atmosphere to impregnate Genesis-honoring crops, and then sue those hapless farmers for patent infringement, that is not just innovative business. It is not just a Wall Street permutation. It is evil. When the food police raid Mark Nolt’s Amish dairy farm in Pennsylvania, steal $20,000 worth of wholesome, sacred, earthworm-encouraging food and destroy it not once, but twice, and enjoin his customers from partaking of that food and feeding it to their children, that is not just bureaucracy gone awry. It is evil. I could go on in this vein for some time, but I think I’ve made my point absolutely clear.
It can’t for the life of me figure out why congregations that decry abortion or alcohol or smoking or Arminianism have no qualms about serving pollution-causing, pathogen-laden chicken in their potlucks on styrofoam plates that won’t decompose. Why aren’t we thinking about these things? Because it takes effort. And it affects our “how shall we then live?” And that’s disturbing.
RAGAN SUTTERFIELD – farmer, writer, speaker, teacher, http://www.ragansutterfield.com
(the following are compiled notes from a telephone interview – sorry if they’re a bit choppy)
-Tell me about your involvement in the sustainable foods movement – particularly with Felder Farm
—Started out at Wheaton College – philosophy major – expected my life to take the trajectory of going off to be a college professor somewhere – attracted to academia and urban life
—In college, introduced to Wendell Berry’s writings; apprenticed with a sheep farmer who knew Wendell; learned the ropes of livestock raising; accumulated pigs, chicken, cattle
—Took on too much too quickly, and had to back out of being full-time farmer for financial reasons…so pursued it in other ways, egg laying operation and chickens and stuff
—Knew a guy who ran an alternative school in Little Rock (Belvere Academy) – the school had 5 acres of open field that they were doing nothing with…he approached the school and asked if they could set up an education-based farm.
—That’s been going now for 3 years – built a greenhouse last winter, do various programs with students.
—Has moved away from being the full-time farm manager there, and is now focusing on writing/teaching/speaking
—Now working on an urban agriculture project down Main St. in Little Rock, AR
-What are some of the mental/cultural/historical/theological roadblocks you find within Christianity that are preventing many Christians from entering into “creation-care” and agrarianism?
—“When I grew up, the picture of our relationship to creation I got from church was the terrarium view of creation: I had a pet turtle, and would give him little pebbles and grass and etc. – it’s like the world was just landscape that God gave us to live in for a while (like a turtle in a terrarium)”
—Now he sees we are a part of creation, dependent upon it. The naming of Adam. The generalized term for human-kind, coming from the word for earth (humus). Ultimately the ground is cursed because of Adam – points to a moral ecololgical relationship, where one thing in the ecosystem affects another…we are ecologically and morally tied to the soil. We see that continually through scripture – Romans
—We don’t pay enough attention to the lesson of Job = Job is a story about God saying, “I’m God. There is a whole creation and world completely independent of human beings, and it’s important to me.” The eagles God cares for, the places in the desert he waters that no one will ever see. Job actually finds comfort in the fact that he is not as important as he thought he was. That goes back to humility, and living close to the earth in our outlook and vision. St. Bernard of Clairvose says “humility is living in the truth.”
-Is agrarianism for everyone? Is farming for everyone? If so, how does one find one’s niche in those things – in other words, what should people do who have a desire to relate with food and the earth in this new (though really old) way?
—Agrarianism is for everyone. Wendell Berry = agrarianism is a habit of mind, a way of thinking about the world – it’s opposed to the industrial mindset
—Education is where agrarianism needs to head next – move away from an industrial model in education, and head to an agrarian model
—It’s how we view the purpose of life and work, and ultimately what we value
—In industrial frame of mind, value = bottom line; In agrarian frame of mind, it’s difficult to find a bottom line, but the success of any project is judged by how it leaves the soil…does it leave it better off, or depleted?
—Farming is not for everyone. There’s a reason Wendell Berry writes about how difficult it is to be a full-time farmer. It’s getting easier because of the growing demand for food from small farmers, but there are lots of pressures because of customer expectations (due to the industrialized model) and the way the system has been set up
—We need a diversity of skills/talents. But one of my big hopes is that more people would see farming as a part of their work. The whole idea that someone is one thing or another (specialization) comes out of the industrial mindset.
—–that’s how many urban people could take on farming as either a part-time thing, or as a subsistence thing – grow all their own vegetables, perhaps. Nobody should commit to that before they learn a little about gardening, but once they learn the basics, subsistence farming is a very worthy activity.
—Part of it is taking on the habit of mind. Humility is an important agrarian virtue – understanding the limits of our abilities, and our knowledge. Look at our relationship with the humus – look at Gen. 2, where Adam is “adama” – from the humus. Understanding our limits, and the level at which we are ultimately dependent upon the soil – soil bacteria, nutrients – for our sustenance. For all of its greatness, everyone who builds a city gets their day-to-day nourishment from the dirt.
—Also we need to pay attention to, and think about, our waste. The more that we compost what we would have called waste, the better.
—One huge issue is human waste – the idea of flushing toilets is completely unsustainable. People who farmed the land forever treated human waste as a cycle – in the soil, food web. I haven’t figured out how to do that exactly, myself. But defnitely see it as a wasted opportunity, a tragedy, when you flush the toilet = that’s taking on the agrarian frame of mind
—Book by Gene Logsdon – Holy Shit – about this very issue
-What people/writings have been influential in the development of your philosophy/theology/lifestyle of agrarianism?
—Wendell Berry…The Unsettling of America (if you read one book); The Body and the Earth
—Gene Logsdon…The Gardener’s Guide to Better Soil; The Contrary Farmer; Living at Nature’s Pace
—Alastair MacIntyre…After Virtue; Dependent Rational Animals…..rooted in the same ideas as Wendell Berry
—Ivan Ilych – Argues that Western Civ. is a perversion of the Gospel – it’s tried to institutionalize love (charity organizations)
—Norman Wierzba – The Essential Agrarian Reader
—Sir Albert Howard
—Farmers of Forty Centuries – F.H. King
—Tree Crops – J. Russell Smith
—Gaia’s Garden – guide to home-scale permaculture
NICOLE MORROW – health coordinator at Kansas City Urban Youth Center, director of their urban gardening program
Q1 – First, what’s your role in the gardening program?
I am the Health Coordinator at the KC Urban Youth Center and part of my duties are to coordinate our obesity prevention program. Gardening is one aspect of this program along with fitness, cycling, and nutrition education. I have been coordinating our garden for the past two seasons.
Q2 – How did the gardening program materialize? How did you learn all the ropes of gardening, and figure out how to mesh that with inner city youth ministry?
Our garden actually started because our students identified that there weren’t very many grocery stores in Kansas City. We did a lot of research the first year on that trend and as a response to that identified need, we started the garden. Honestly even though we are going into our fourth year, I still don’t feel like we “know the ropes” yet. We learn something every year. Like one year we learned that basil plants bush out from the place you picked. By the end of the season, we had almost 50 square feet of huge basil bushes (way more than we or anyone really could use). In the beginning and even now we rely really heavily on the Kansas City Community Gardens and our local extension office. They have a ton of information about what plants grow when, how to plant them, and how to prepare them. Our local community gardens has a very minimal fee but the free consulting and the product that they give us is more than worth it.
Q3 – What does Christianity have to do with what you’re doing – particularly the gardening portion?
Faith is the foundation to everything we do at the center. Our mission statement is “offering urban youth christian hope, community, and wholeness”. That hope, community, and wholeness is why we provide our kids with mentors, teach them to read, feed them healthy snacks, etc. In my mind, the garden is a big part of this. The garden provides our kids with the opportunity to see the miracle of God’s creation. Every year, we plant seeds and then wait. In that waiting period, there are always kids without fail that come up to me and say, “Miss Nicole, it isn’t going to grow”. I reassure them that it will while in my own heart I have the same fear. When the first sprouts come up, it is a joyous day. We all get so excited. It really is a miracle. We don’t often get to see something happen so quickly, but in the garden we watch a seed become a plant and eventually bear fruit. On a sort of related note, I think that having a space for urban kids to be outside is crucial. Our kids often spend time in the garden just digging in the dirt, looking at worms, and watering. Just being outside is healthy and something that our kids so rarely get.
Q4 – Have you considered making your methods duplicable – in case others want to start ministries like this and pattern it after your success?
We don’t really have a method that is specific to us. We have relied on those around us that have that knowledge (KC Community gardens, extension office). There are great curricula out there that link gardening to reading, math, science, faith, whatever. Last year, we did one from our extension office that was heavy on the plant science aspect. I would say that if someone wanted to replicate what we have done they should first figure out what organizations or resources that are around them. If they don’t have an organization like community gardens (although most urban areas do), I would search online to figure out planting schedules for their particular region. The thing about gardens is that they require diligent daily care but if you are willing to put the care into it really it is pretty simple.
Q5 – Is gardening simply pragmatic – getting cheap veggies – or is there something else happening, nationwide, and within urban agriculture? Why is urban agriculture, particularly among Christian ministries, growing?
For us it is half about the cheap veggies and half about the experience. We give all of the produce we raise to the low-income families we serve. We know that sometimes they don’t get many fresh veggies and many have expressed deep gratitude. We also know that we are giving our students an experience to work hard and see the fruits of their labor. A couple years ago we planted potatoes. You plant what looks like an old potato in the ground. It grows a pretty green bushy plant. You water, weed, water, weed, water, weed for a really long time. Then the plant dies. It is at that point that you dig up potatoes. That first year, I remember asking one of our 5th graders what he thought knowing that we grew these potatoes ourselves. He smiled sheepishly and said, “this is really cool”. I don’t really know why other christian organizations are beginning to garden, but I would assume that for many it is the same as for us. It is a way to care for the poor and it is a way to see God bring beauty out of dust. It’s a miracle.
Q6 – Can you give a specific instance or two (or three!) where you have seen youth positively impacted by the gardening program?
There are lots of good stories, I am sure. Just last week (while there was about 6 inches of snow covering our garden beds), two kids asked when we were going to plant. Who would have thought that they would love it so much? One kid in particular sticks out. He was in 5th grade and read at a 1st grade reading level. Kids would tease him a lot and so he developed sort of a tough reputation. He was quick to fight and often really angry. For some reason, he took to the garden amazingly. He would ask everyday what he could do. I learned to entrust him with detailed jobs that other kids would rush through. He was patient and calm when he was in the garden. We all need a place of rest and respite and the garden was his for some reason. For all of our kids that have had hard lives but particularly for him, I am glad that the garden can give them something to be proud of.
That’s all! Thanks for reading!