Faith-Based Farming

Joel explores how his spiritual principles inform his stewardship of animals, plants, and the land.

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by AdobeStock/jbphotographylt

Too often in environmentally themed discussions, spiritual reasons for building compost piles and pond dams get lost in practical how-to. Our temptation is to get excited about the how, and that’s all well and good. But if we plan to leave a legacy that inspires people to continue building compost piles and pond dams, we need to talk about the why.

Some business consultants use a questioning technique called “5 Whys.” The idea is that you have to ask “Why?” five times before you can get to the real heart of an issue. So, just for fun, let’s do a round about compost piles.

Question 1:Why build a compost pile?

Answer: To decompose biomass quickly and completely.

Question 2: Why decompose biomass quickly and completely?

Answer: Decomposed biomass is the best fertility amendment for soil.

Question 3: Why is decomposed biomass the best fertility amendment for soil?

Answer: Because that’s what feeds the soil’s microorganisms.

Question 4: Why do we need to feed the soil’s microorganisms?

Answer: Because they’re living beings that need feeding.

Question 5: Why do living beings need food?

Answer: Because God made them to eat.

You could find fault with my progression, or with my definition of “God,” but the point is that you’ll eventually end up with big questions about creation, why we’re here, and the point of it all. No matter what you believe, if you ask “Why?” enough times, you’ll still get to your bedrock values.

When people ask me why I farm the way I do, my favorite response is “Because it’s right.” But that’s obviously a moral statement. It supposes that if somebody farms differently, their approach could be “wrong.” And what’s ultimately right and wrong is based on a code of ethics that varies from person to person and faith to faith. Interestingly, on the whole, my personal faith community sometimes espouses a different view of Earth stewardship than I do, even though we may read the same scriptures. A fellow churchgoer whose vocation is promoting chemical fertilizers, genetically modified corn, and factory farming could quickly justify those activities based on a dominion mandate. When “dominion” is the operative word, you can be sure the associated methods aren’t about nurturing; they’re about conquering. Indeed, God has been invoked throughout history for plenty of atrocities.

Compost bin

As a teenager in a conservative Christian home during the Vietnam War era and the launch of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, hippies, and Woodstock, I lived a strange dichotomy. Our church friends routinely criticized health food and compost as an outgrowth of tree-hugger folly. Our farm friends talked about Gaia, free love, and going back to the land. In our family, these two worlds weren’t exclusive. Through that experience and the years since, I haven’t found the Earth-care community contradictory to my biblical worldview; I’ve found it complementary in many ways. In fact, if I could state my belief succinctly today, it would be this: The entire physical creation is an object lesson of spiritual truth. In other words, the God I believe in needed a way to illustrate what humanly we could not see. That profound idea frames how I farm in remarkable ways.

For example, forgiveness is a big spiritual principle. What does forgiveness look like? It looks like healthy animals and plants when sickness rules all around us. It looks like green grass when drought sucks moisture out of the soil. It looks like filling ponds when flood waters invade a neighborhood. It looks like simple infrastructure that’s easy to rebuild after the devastation of a tornado. Each of these examples has a counterpart visible in orthodox industrial farming, which depletes water, decreases immune function, and requires monolithic buildings that are hard to rebuild after a disaster. I want visitors to our farm to leave exclaiming, “Wow, so that’s what forgiveness looks like.”

Let’s take another example: neighborliness. Most people know the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s pretty simple, but again, what does that look like? It sure doesn’t look like stinking up the neighborhood and polluting the aquifers. It doesn’t mean pesticides drifting across the boundary fence, or errant genetically modified organisms invading your neighbors’ fields.

According to biblical narrative, the highest commendation after this physical existence is “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What does faithfulness look like? It has to do with stewardship of ourselves and the gifts entrusted to our care. So, how do we illustrate faithfulness to help us comprehend unseen tenets? I’d say we show it through how we care for the physical world. In other words, our footsteps and efforts should leave behind healthier soil, more breathable air, more drinkable water, more conscious awareness of how ecology works, and more awe regarding the mysteries of life. That means we must think about microscopic organisms as much as we do about picking praise songs, don’t you think? It means that nothing is outside the sphere of spiritual interest. It means that we appreciate all of the microbial life in a handful of healthy soil upon which we depend. Indeed, realizing that the visible is completely dependent on the invisible is another profound ecological principle with spiritual ramifications. From a spiritual perspective, does anyone think a dead zone the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf of Mexico is a good return on investment? Or is anyone considering that hundreds of years of European occupation in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia yielded 3 to 5 feet of topsoil erosion? Is that a good ROI?

During all that time, people were taking the cash from eroding fields and putting it into offering plates to help mission projects around the world, which simply heightens the hypocrisy of divorcing the spiritual-physical union. The ultimate segregated thinking is when we separate the two spheres, as if one has moral dimensions and the other one doesn’t.

Finally, a common biblical theme is “whosoever will,” meaning those who seek shall find. What does “whosoever will” look like? In farming, I would suggest that it looks like a system in which entry is easy. If you want to grow a chicken for Tyson, the first thing you have to do is build a half-million-dollar football-field-sized factory house. Would you call that an impediment to entry? I sure would; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s elitist. If you need to put in half a million dollars to join the fraternity, that’s pretty tough.

Compare that with pastured poultry, using mobile, modular shelters. On our farm, we can build these brand-new for $300. That’s a “whosoever will” model; just about anyone can get in. Plenty of people raise pastured poultry on land they don’t even own, such as under orchard trees or along with cows, because it fits nicely with other enterprises. The physical empowerment that such a model offers is like the spiritual empowerment that “whosoever will” offers: poor, rich, smart, stupid, wise, foolish. All are welcome. If you have to grow 20 tons of tomatoes in order to access the market, that’s pretty restrictive. But if you sell to your neighbors or at a farmers market, you can get in with a couple of plants. That’s “whosoever will.”

Rainbow over spring field

Plenty of other spiritual concepts can be illustrated by our farming, and I’ve done that in my book The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Caring for All of God’s Creation. I can’t imagine being a conventional, orthodox, chemical-based factory farmer living under the tension of contradictory values. Dare we ask: Does what we believe in the pew show up on the menu? That’s the question for farmers and eaters. Too often, the great spiritual truths espoused from the pulpit never nestle into the fields and forks of practice.

Harmonizing our spiritual and physical universe is one thing. Caretaking our physical world out of our spiritual understanding is even better. I covet the day when the faith community embraces Earth-stewardship mandates as if they’re as practically and profoundly important as spiritual principles. They are one.