Among the many failings of the Western church in the late 20th and earliest 21st Century is its benign negligence to rural America.
Were rural America - small farmers, small agriculturalists, or those that make their living by them - to be an impacted urban group or a population in foreign lands, likely the Church would be up in arms speaking, praying, and proposing ways to support them. But to those that are their fellow citizens, albeit buried in small towns or slowly being buried as the land about them turns into housing tracts, they scarcely give a second thought. Food continues to appear in the stores; why any need to intervene in what is obviously an example of progress and freeing people from the drudgery of labor?
Enter Reverend Hughey Reynolds and The Land That Calls Me Home: Connecting God's People to God's Land Through God's Church
The book was suggested to m by friend of this blog Leigh Tate at Five Acres And A Dream. Her recommendations, when given, are something that I immediately pay attention to - and once again, I am glad that I did.
The thesis of the work is to be found in the introduction:
"The church has a key role to play in restoring the viability of small farms in America. No other organization or entity is better equipped or positioned than the church to lead people to overcome our increasing estrangement from the soil and help us reconnect to it physically and spiritually through small-scale diversified farming (Note: Small scale diversified farming is defined elsewhere in the book as "one that produces food for the household that lives on it to eat with enough in addition to sell at market for a modest income"). I have come to this conviction as I have reflected on my life experiences in light of the Biblical story in which a healthy relationship between humanity and the soil is indispensable to a right relationship with God".
Reverend Reynolds - at the time of the book (2012) a 40 year clergyman in the United Method Church in Alabama - divides the book up into four sections. In the first, he recounts his own history as the child of a small-scale farmer and the conflict he felt growing up as his own family moved farther and farther away from the land as the times changed - and of his own call back to the land (Of note, his history would like reflect in some ways my own father's history and those of other readers or their parents here). In the second, he discusses the growth of agribusiness and its impact on small scale farming, both at a high level and at the scale of his local parishes. In the third, he talks over a series of questions to help an individual evaluate their interest and ability in farming (one chapter is very practical: "Managing Finances on the Small Farm"). The fourth section is what the Church's responsibility and response should be to enabling all of this.
One of the key things about this book is that Hughey's belief is not that "everyone should farm". He understands that not everyone wants to or can; what he does feel is that it is the church's responsibility to connect small scaled diversified farmers with people that are not farmers through the mechanism of farmers' markets, direct sales, and supporting small agriculturalists. For Hughey, this is just as important as any other aspect of the Church's ministry and should be practiced with the just the same vigor as any other outreach program.
What would that look like? As mentioned above, farmers' markets are one example (and something that Hughey's church created locally as discussed in the last chapter of the book). Community Gardens are another mode, as well as working to give farmers a voice: "I want the church to raise awareness of the impact of government actions and corporate practices on rural communities. I want the church at a denominational and judicatory level to inspire and equip local churches with the training they need to speak to and resist powers that diminish their lifestyle and drain resources from rural communities".
One may recall that recently reviewed another book - Almost Amish - and there decried the fact of a sort of high level review of a somewhat similar subject with no research. That is not the case here: the book is reasonably footnoted and has 6 pages of 10 font, single spaced references. When statistics and information are quoted, it is based on data.
The book was written in 2012 - how successful was Hughey's vision for his church? That is hard to assess: a web search does not indicate any other books by him and a single blog that is effectively defunct. That said, the farmers' market started by him and his congregation is apparently still an actively going concern 10 years later although Reverend Hughey is no longer there (he currently is shown as "retired clergy", but he apparently still posts on The Book of Face). That is actually not a small thing, given the last 10 years and in some small way, hopefully his vision survives.
It is probably no surprise (if you are a long time reader) that I enjoyed this book. It matches two things that I am passionate about, Christian theology and small scale agriculture. For those that are not of the Christian persuasion, it is not at all preachy or using the book as an apologetic. It is directly facing inwards at the Church on its own failings and what it can do to act in conformance with itself as it would for any other group in distress.
I leave you with two quotes, both which I found thought provoking:
"Not knowing much about agriculture is my friend's prerogative. Yet, that choice separates him from the soil and makes his food security very dependent upon others to grown, select, process, package, deliver, and many times cook, the food he eats. He does not go hungry because of his income and access to food. He would go hungry if eating depended on his knowledge to grow food."
"The American economy will remain sluggish, uncertain, and volatile as long as it relies on the greed of investors, on foreign or domestic petroleum, and on profit-driven food distributors who, in order to keep prices lower than their small-scale farm competitors, offer empty-calorie-food that is mass produced and processed. The church has a role in the economic recovery of America that is more than reading last rites to the dying and binding up the wounds of the injured. The church can rally, organize, and empower those who choose to farm on a small scale in rural communities to stand up to the organized effort of government and corporate powers that drove most American famers from the land and made their way of life untenable."
I guess I'm not sure what to think about such a book. While I'm sure it is applicable to a few, all the farmers I know don't raise food directly, at least not at a main crop. Instead they raise ingredients for everything from the gasoline industry to food additives. So I'm not sure of the utility of having the church being an intermediary. Many of them raise food on the side for their own consumption and to diversify their income streams but rarely does it compromise a full diet. I.e. they may raise beef but not fruits, vegetables, dairy or grains.ReplyDelete
Ed, I think the book was written not as much to those farmers that you relate of, but rather a different group, which I would probably refer to as small market farmers. Although not, I suspect the assumption was not a full diet (the family milking cow or goat is a rare occurrence now) but large portions of it.Delete
In terms of the Church, I believe he was suggesting less of an intermediary in the middle-man sense of the word, and more of an advocate to speak up where the Church has failed to speak up before.
Although I think their numbers are growing, I wonder how much of the whole, boutique farmers or truck farmers as I have referred to them, are? My dad's dream was always to start a truck farm of some sort, a dream that will most likely never happen at this point. To some extent, our garden is a little bit of a truck farm as our excesses have made it into the back of our "truck" and were given away or sold.Delete
Then after knowing how many currently, the next obvious question is to what extent they can increase their numbers? Everyone can't do it but I'm sure there is room for a lot more right now, especially as less of more "traditional" farmers sell less crops for ethanol and sweeteners and need to make up the lost revenue.
None of this is really relevant to your post but it did get me to thinking. Thanks!
Ed, like many things I suspect the number is growing, driven if by nothing else people more willing to take the risk (or needing to) - I have two in my direct circle of folks that have. Likely it will never be formally reported as such.Delete
To what extent? That may also be driven by extrinsic factors beyond our control. Cost of fuel and transportation comes to mind - if the price of fuel truly rises, locally grown produce becomes more viable. I think the key (as the book suggests) is not just that we find people to do it, we find people to connect the buyers to those that want to.
And getting people thinking - that is exactly why I do this (as well as getting people talking). Thanks for making my day!
TB, I'm really happy to read this review and get your perspective. I think more and more people are realizing that local, community food systems are the best option for food security. Every time I drive by a church now, I think how lovely it would be if their parking lot would become a weekly farmers' market. Sadly, I think many of them wouldn't do it because of insurance.ReplyDelete
Leigh - I think it is at least beginning to penetrate some consciousnesses that were previous impervious to the thought.Delete
Insurance is likely a huge consideration, although I think the problem runs deeper than that. It is the myopic view of the Church's view of the world.
One church in the sort of "near abroad" sponsors a Highland Game every Fall. That I know of, this is the only church that does so. They do it as an outreach ministry and the congregation assists with admissions, meals and so on. Highland gamers are in some ways a desperate lot - we will go and throw anywhere. I do not recall that people specifically thought of it as a church sponsored event (although I do believe language is a bit more controlled than usual), but they at least have that association.
Highland Gamers are by no means necessarily the dregs of society (well, perhaps), but there is no-one that is at least creating opportunities to minister to them. It is not as if there was some sermon or altar call at the end, just people being nice and giving folks a way to do something they love - in the name of Jesus.
It is not that I specifically blame the membership of the Church for not asking such questions (I wish they would) as I do the leadership of the Church (could be any denomination). The Church in some ways effectively put itself is a service ghetto, defining what and how it will reach out. Reverend Hughey's suggestion of a farmer's market as a practical outreach is the sort of new thinking needed.