So you think you can farm?
Everyone knew who they were. Wandering the halls in steel-toe boots, jeans, and plaid, they talked tractors and nodded from under hats bearing the logos of local feed suppliers.
They skipped school — not to bum around the mall or smoke up down the street — but to help with harvest. In the complex hierarchy of high-school subcultures, the farm kids occupied a category of their own, and everyone knew who they were.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who had returned from a season of work on an organic farm. Among other things, she also works as a barista at a downtown café and regularly helps organize fashion shows. The lines dividing my high-school system of social classes have now been blurred, and the people now interested in raising laying hens and planting fruit trees are looking a lot different than they once did.
Even if you live in the heart of downtown Montreal, chances are that you or someone you know has either expressed interest or participated in some sort of farming experiment. WOOFing (Working On Organic Farms), community gardens, farmers’ markets, and summers spent on local farms are no longer reserved for middle-aged men in straw hats; they are now the stuff of hipsters and socially-conscious undergrads looking for summer employment. The do-it-yourself appeal of producing one’s own food, along with participation in an alternative to what many view as destructive and unsustainable food production have a surprising number of young people interested in farming.
Whenever I mention I often spend several of my summer weekends canning fruits and vegetables with my family, I receive a litany of envious responses. What folks want, I think, when they respond like they do, is the deep satisfaction and sense of reward and independence one experiences having produced one’s own food — a satisfaction that cannot be found in the aisles of your nearest grocery store.
At some level, we all know that something is profoundly wrong with our food system, and it doesn’t take an environmental engineer to explain it to us. Nearly all the edible material you and I handle nowadays is some far-removed bi-product of the earth. Think about the last meal you ate. How many stages of processing, packaging, delivery, and sales did it have to go through to get to your plate? How many separate ingredients were shipped? How many separate kilometers prior to that? With all of that in mind, we can begin to understand why there is something powerful about the immediacy you experience when you brush the dirt off a carrot you planted months ago and just now unearthed, and why a disillusioned, dot-com city-dweller would be interested in doing just that.
Before you abandon your degree and run off to the countryside though, you need to know that it is incredibly difficult to make a living farming at a sustainable, small-scale level. Agriculture nowadays is a big-business affair, and in many ways a complex and broken system whose problems simply will not be solved by planting an urban garden or making a trip to the local organic market. There is, however, something that can be learned from all of this, and something profound that can be reclaimed in our efforts, however small, to participate in the work of agriculture.
We were created for connection with the earth, and, in our increasingly disconnected urban landscapes, our generation has begun to long for a return to that vision of living. Community and rooftop gardens, farmers’ markets, and summer internships are really tangible ways to become more environmentally and socially conscious. In a very real sense, participation in the work of the field hand is a way of becoming human.
This is the last of Nick Schuurman’s faith and farming series.
To read part 1: How farming and faith relate
Part 2: Theology of food
Part 3: Graveyard for silos
Illustration by Jennifer Ku
Graveyard for silos
The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care.
On car rides as a child, I used to watch the countryside out the window. As we traveled along highways that cut through what used to be farmland, I remember seeing old barns, now abandoned, and cement silos standing empty at their sides. I always thought those silos looked like old gravestones. The image, it turns out, is an apt metaphor for the changes that lent themselves to shaping that landscape.
Despite its difficulties, my dad loved farming. It’s what he grew up doing. It’s what his father did, after he immigrated here from Holland, and it’s what his brothers continue to do. My family doesn’t own the farm anymore, though. The barns, like the ones I saw during those car rides, now stand, abandoned and gutted. For all the satisfaction the work allowed him, raising hogs in an increasingly dismal market led him (along with dozens of other farmers in the area) to sell the land and pursue work elsewhere.
During our last few years on the farm, a couple of families with cash in the bank together set up shop to the north of us, building two mammoth, 2000-sow barns behind ours (which, to give some sense of the difference in scale, housed 125 mother pigs). I ended up working in one of them one summer during college.
Think back to high school history class for a second. During the time of the Industrial Revolution, folks discovered that more products could be produced faster, and at a lower cost, if they were put together not by men and women who had a broad understanding of how the products worked, but by lower-paid individuals who performed only one or two specific tasks all day. And so when Henry Ford first made cars, he went around the country looking for the best cart and bicycle craftsmen, whereas today I have friends who couldn’t tell you how to change your car’s oil, but are employed by major automobile companies — fastening the same dozen bolts all day long.
Agriculture in North America has gone through a similar transformation. I have worked with folks who would probably believe that potatoes grow on trees if you told them, because all they are required to know to get their paycheck is that the green ones are bad for you, that the rotten ones will make a mess of the storage, and that both need to be picked off of a conveyor belt with as much consistency and at the fastest speeds possible. The world of large-scale, industrial monoculture has come to resemble, in many ways, that of the factory on the other end of town.
The death and dying of the small-scale family farm, and the factory-style model that has taken its place, has resulted in a loss as profound as that of environment, land, and even a means of livelihood. It is a loss of the deep knowledge that was required to care for fields and livestock: knowledge that was a result of years of experience, that was learned from the generation before, that understood and could work with the whole, rather than a single part.
When I was a kid, riding in that car, the world seemed simple. There were the good guys and there were bad guys, and I thought it was pretty clear who was who. With each year that has been added to my life, however, I have become increasingly aware that this little planet is incredibly complex. A loss is a loss, however, regardless of who is to blame. I for one mourn what is lost each time I pass one of those old cement silos.
This is part three of Nick Shuurman’s farming series. You can find part one here:
Part 1: How farming and faith relate
Part 2: Theology of food
Part 4: So you think you can farm?
“Our present ecological crisis, the biggest single practical threat to our human existence in the middle to long term, has, religious people would say, a great deal to do with our failure to think of the world as existing in relation to the mystery of God, not just as a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” – Archbishop Rowan Williams
There’s this old statement of faith called the Westminster Confession that answers the age old question of “what’s the point of this all?” The purpose of our existence, the Confession states is to, “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That’s it. The meaning and purpose of life is to bring God glory.
Now, what would happen if we started to think about what we put on our plate in light of that question?
You see, the idea that we are primarily consumers is so engrained in us that a question like that probably seems a little awkward at first. This meal is about filling my gut with these tacos the way I like them, right?
Trouble is, we were not designed to function as consumers. From the get-go, we were put together to care for God’s creation, and the job description still stands. The shift in thinking regarding creation in which we no longer view the earth as a big blue vending machine, but rather a gift from God which we were meant to enjoy and care for is a difficult one precisely because we live this side of Eden. We fight against this sort of me-centeredness in every area of our life, not only when it comes to food. But the more our hearts are turned on their heads by grace, the more they beat for the love of God and neighbour. What I am suggesting is that renewal ought to spill over into all areas of life, including agriculture, production of livestock, food distribution, and preparation.
There is a lot of talk about this kind of sustainability and ethical food production, and a lot of motivations are at play. Guilt can get a lot of people to do things. I stood in front of a grocery store refrigerator today, and thinking about some of the more terrible ways some of that food is produced was enough to get me to open my wallet a little further. The same goes for pride. I was a vegetarian for a while, and I felt really good about telling people about it, because it meant that I was doing something that showed I cared in a way that others didn’t. As author and activist Matthew Sleeth wrote, “Often, those on either end of the scale — people who insist on organic free range broccoli and people who salivate over pan-fried baby dolphin — care about nothing but themselves.” Not only do we need to make better choices about our food, we need to think about why we’re making these choices. God’s glory as a motivator for creation care, though, is something so completely countercultural and revolutionary because it puts the focus completely outside of ourselves — outside of creation altogether — and on the Creator.
If God’s glory is the point of this life, how does what you eat (which, when you think about it, constitutes a pretty huge part of living) come into play?