Sunday, September 29, 2019

Paula Stoltzfus: Farming for the earth and soul

Farms and Human Flourishing
2 Corinthians 9:6b-11; Deuteronomy 8:7-10, 17-19; Psalms 107:35-43; Mark 4: 26-34

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Farming for the Earth and Soul

My Dad grew up on a dairy farm in rural Indiana.  His parents both grew up on Amish farms.  He had what I would consider a hobby farm growing up, raising beef cattle on occasion. I remember enjoying hearing him share stories of growing up on the farm, with two barn burning stories, mice in the corn bin, and the food a hard working family of 12 would eat.  

When the Stoltzfus family gets together, I hear stories of the farm they grew up on, a potato and dairy farm in Morgantown, PA.  Both sets of their grandparents also were farmers.  

Of my Dad’s 9 siblings, only 2 ended up farming until he retired.  I would have 2 cousins who continued farming.  Of John’s 5 siblings, 1 farmed until 10 years ago.  Meaning no one is actively farming in the family.

I’m curious as to how many of you grew up on farms?  And how many farm today?
Farming has changed with the modernization of equipment, the financial demands, and the urbanization of many areas. Many people are 2-3 generations removed from growing food off the land.

So, I’m curious.  How many of you are aware of farmers in your family 2-3 generations back?
Yet, farming is a backbone in many rural towns.  Farmers form a network for one another that help each other out, and build a network of relationships that creates a sense of community.    

Christina Harman lives on her family farm where they operate a dairy.  She testifies to this sense of taking care of one another.  When her uncle had a fall and broken ankle, farmers surrounding them offered time and resources to the family to help bridge the gap.

But within farming communities, those gaps are becoming larger and harder to fill.  The stresses of making ends meet, picking up second jobs, and family strain is great.  

Definition of wealth

Our passage in Deuteronomy speaks of a vision of what the Israelites will move into when they cross into the promised land.  A land with flowing streams and springs, wheat and barley, vines and fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey.  A land that has resources and food available without scarcity.  

Imagine how this may have been heard from a people who had been relying on manna and quail, enough food for one day for decades while traversing in a dry and arid desert.  

They were moving into a land of bounty where they would have plenty for today and tomorrow.  Wealth was measured by nature’s bounty. They were instructed to give thanks, remembering where they had come from.

I can identify with the sense of wealth that comes from nature’s bounty.  Storing and preserving food has always been a part of my awareness.  I feel privileged to have grown up in a family that passed on the tradition of canning and freezing the garden’s yield.  I have memories of sitting on the front porch swing shelling peas, picking beans, shucking corn, and turning the food mill crank to make applesauce.  I did not consider this positive character-building or even educational work at the time, but I value the memories and skills it has taught me.  These are traditions and life skills I value and carry on.  So when we get to this time of year, I get a sense of fulfillment seeing the colorful display of filled jars on the shelves and full freezer.  This sense of bounty or wealth is different.    

Wealth in our present age has been defined differently than our agrarian history.  The American dream has come to value the dollar to buy as much as it possibly can, seeking commodities that can be bought at the cheapest price possible. 

Local farms are getting squeezed out by consumers demanding cheaper produce and meats even if they are shipped from hundreds and thousands of miles away.  We have become immune to seasonal produce, demanding that we have all vegetables and fruits available year-round.  We have lost a sense of eating with the seasons. I confess that I enjoy having avocados whenever I want them.  But this way of consuming is depleting our resources instead of making them sustainable.

There are people and places where this is changing in local communities, making the profession of farming a liveable wage.  

Consider the Community Supported Agriculture or CSA movement.  A program in which farmers sell produce  subscriptions to local patrons who then receive produce weekly for the growing season. 
The local farmers market or farm stands provides direct farm to table consumables.  A place where you can get to know the farms and their practices.  

Vine and Fig, Community gardens, and Willow Run, a farm supplying our neighboring retirement community with fresh produce, are all examples of initiatives that support small farms in our area.
There are a significant number of people who grow some portion of their food.  It may be a large garden and some animals, but it also could be in pots either inside or outside the house.

When we are intentional about the farms in which our food comes, we are speaking into the agricultural system around us.  When we consider what is sustaining the farms, we consider what sustains the earth.  When we consider what sustains the earth, we consider what sustains us.  And here in lies our relationship with God and one another.  The wealth of this web of relationship is not of this world, but it is the wealth that will sustain it.

Scattering seeds

In Mark, we hear Jesus speak of the kingdom of God being like a seed that is scattered, sprouts and produces.  This account parallels Matthew’s writing of Jesus sharing the parable of the sower.  It is assumed in these accounts that the seed’s life is impacted by the kind of soil it falls upon. The original audience would have been a part of an agrarian society that lived with the rhythm of the land.  They don’t speak of the work of farming but more the results of farming as the sower.  They would have been taught from early on about what makes a seed grow and the importance of soil.

Good soil is made up of over half the weight of organic material such as, worms, beetles, microscopic fungi, molds, ants, millipede, mites, and bacteria. Some of you might be thinking gross!  Some of you might be thinking fun!  Heather Dean and Tom Benevento, food justice activists and authors write that, “all of these creatures dance in a complex rhythm of consumption and excretion, life and death, and though this dance usually goes unnoticed in the human world, our lives depend on it.” 

I love this imagery.  Soil is biodiverse, providing a balance of organic matter that holds moisture, but also drains, feeds the seed while also fights off pests and disease, and holds its form but can also be shaped by what is around it.  In this environment, a seed can sprout, grow, and be harvested or like the mustard seed, can provide shade or home for another part of creation. Our lives and the lives of many of God’s creatures depend on this dance to sustain life.

Contrary to this picture, present day farms are placed under great pressure to get high yields for maximum profit at the expense of healthy soil.  Wendell Berry, farmer and author wrote, “industrial agriculture, built according to the single standard of productivity, has dealt with nature, including human nature, in the manner of a monologist or an orator.” In other words, farming has been shaped within the last 50 years by one telling of how agriculture needs to be raised, valuing quantity over quality, monocropping over variety of crops, and short-term gain over long-term sustainability. This telling of the farming story does not take into consideration the practices that would preserve the land, value its fertility and ecological health, for generations of farming.   

Yesterday I was down at my brother and sister in law’s farm in Waynesboro where they are transitioning to running the Wenger Grape farm for the 4th generation. I happened to run into my sister in laws Mom and talked with her a bit about her experience growing up and living on a farm all her life.  She grew up on a chicken farm north of here in Broadway and married into the Vineyard farming.  She highlighted that for her, growing up near the land has allowed her to know herself and God more fully.  There is something about working intimately with creation that we learn about our self and God.

Planting seeds

Have you ever planted something, vegetable, house plant, flowers?  If you have, I can guarantee you paid it more attention.  Whether it was a success is irrelevant.  We learn from planting and observing. 
Whether it might be figurative talk about planting seeds of faith or planting seeds in soil, I believe we have something to learn from this image Jesus uses of casting seeds.

That learning will take some reflection, observation, and contemplation.

I am challenged by our agrarian laced scriptures and the applications that may apply for our earth and our souls as we consider the church as a place for planting seeds of faith in God.

For instance:  

What kind of soil are we cultivating in our personal and corporate life that is encouraging growth in our faith in God?  

How have we allowed our biodiversity to become our enemy instead of our friend?

How are we holding our faith in Jesus in a way that allows it to hold its form while allowing it to be shaped by what is growing around it?

How have we bought into the definition of wealth in our culture that has depleted our ability to sustain the richness of life within community?

Land of plenty

On a local level, we live in a land that sounds much like the promised land written about in Deuteronomy.  A land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees, pears and apples and honey…a land where you will lack nothing.

We give you thanks God for the bounty which is right around us.  Give us eyes to see and ears to hear how we can sustain this bounty and share it with others. AMEN

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