I’ve just finished reading a collection of letters written to young farmers. Surprisingly, they are captivating, even to me. The contributors are mostly seasoned agriculturalists, though commonly they have other roles as well. Writing is one of them. Their shared concern is to encourage those who are new to the profession, calling them to a deeper and more considered commitment to their work.
Granted, it’s an odd book for the pastor of a city church to read. My daily work is about as far removed from the land as one could imagine. My interest in food, however, is strong. Connections of dependence upon those who work to provide food for my table and others are genuine and daily. I could claim other connections: my father was a farmer; I was born onto a dairy farm in the Gippsland; I own a small part in a some acres in central Victoria. But none of that makes me any more a farmer than I am an astronaut. The farm is not my world.
That said, I can see in the exhortations of these mentor-farmers applications to the work I do as a pastor. It makes me wonder if the distance between our worlds is really as wide as I imagine. Some of the observations that struck me are these:
The farmer is a professional
There’s an affirming spirit to these letters, a reminder from seasoned to budding farmers that their work is important, no matter how it is regarded, or disregarded, more broadly. The words “I am just a farmer” have no place here. “However calloused your hands,” Barbara Kingsolver writes, “however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellectually demanding.”
As with many professions, only those who know farming from the inside can appreciate its demands. Amidst the complexities of environment, climate and the global market, successful farming today requires significant levels of competence, risk and skill. The encouragement is clear: take your work, your competence and your importance seriously, even if others don’t.
There is wisdom here for pastors too. While there is no place for an inflated sense of ourselves, we do need to take ourselves seriously as professionals. Though we may not often feel the esteem of the surrounding culture, we know well what our work demands and the potential contribution it makes. As with all professions, we submit to systems of accreditation, rites of ordination, the needs for academic qualifications and professional competencies earned through time. While these are not everything, they ain’t nothin’ either. Whatever assessment others make of us, our work is important. We do well to remember it.
To farm is a vocation
This second observation follows on from the first. At the same time, it provides a counter to it. Routinely these writers speak of farming as a spiritual calling. More than a profession, a skill-set or work to be done, farming is a vocation that says as much about identity as it does about the work itself. Farming is not only the work a farmer does; it is who the farmer is. It’s this that can hold a farmer to the land when nothing else can make sense of it.
This is a point the Franciscan farmer Gary Paul Nabhan makes well. “As best I can figure, becoming a farmer is not that much different from becoming a monk,” he writes, “because it is ultimately about adhering to a spiritual path. You have to have faith that it is your calling because undertaking it does not make much economic, social, or political sense at all. Very few of you will get rich, get famous and powerful, or get laid simply because you are a farmer.”
We pastors get this. Our work is more than the work we do. It flows from our identity as men and women of faith. Pastoral leadership is more than qualifications, degrees or contracts; it is who we are. So when our work doesn’t make sense, when it’s hard beyond anyone’s knowing, and when its rewards are slim, we keep showing up. To do otherwise would be to walk away from something deeply part of us.
To farm well is to work from your strengths
This third theme I noticed is one that took me by surprise. I have commonly assumed farming as a long line of responsibilities that simply have to be met. Surely from one dairy farm to the next, from one field of grain to another, the tasks are much the same. How little I know. It’s clear from these letters that farming takes a great deal of creativity and will look different from one context to the next and from one farmer to another. It’s here the uniqueness of the individual comes into play.
In an especially energetic letter, Joel Salatin presses young farmers, “What are you good at? What do you know? What do you enjoy?” he asks. “Where those three universes intersect is the sweet spot for your success. Many times, we fritter away most of our time struggling with things we don’t like or aren’t good at and fail to capitalize on areas of passion and proficiency. Life’s too short to be squandered that way.”
Clearly it’s a good point for farmers, and pastors too. Just as there is more than one way to farm a piece of land, so there are multiple ways to pastor a church. Thank God for that. We are not all cut from the same cloth or made for the same expressions of ministry. At our best, we do what we do as an expression of who we are, not who we would like to be or who others wish we were. How much energy I have squandered over the years trying desperately to compensate for my inadequacies, peddling ever faster in areas of ministry in which I’ll only ever be mediocre. My “passions and proficiencies” are the best of me. If I do not operate as much as possible out of these, I short change myself and the church.
Sustainable farming requires a sustainable farmer
Some of the most impassioned advice for young farmers relates to their sustainability. There is a consistent call to ‘balance’ in these letters, a balance of time and energy that enable the farmer to flourish over the long haul.
“Farming can be all-consuming,” writes Mary-Howell Martens, “especially at certain times of the year, and without a plan to protect an acceptable level of personal balance, you may find the farm takes all. Farming will invariably define your family, your self-esteem, your financial choices, your self-image, your priorities, and your time. It will profoundly shape how you interpret life and death, weather, money, time, food, community, exercise, and faith.”
It’s this all-consuming nature of farming, fed by a deep sense of vocation, that is the farmer’s greatest strength and potential downfall. Richard Wiswall underlines the danger: “When the financial numbers don’t line up, farmers … can be famously guilty of self-exploitation. Like many entrepreneurs, farmers believe in what they do so much that they will do what it takes to succeed: work longer and longer hours, sacrifice family and leisure time, balance the books at night so as not to waste precious daylight hours. Deep meaning derived from their work is one of the fuels that keep farmers going despite increasing hardships. But there is no limit to this.”
I can only imagine how this danger plays out for the farmer. I know first hand it’s impact in pastoral ministry. Our sense of vocation is both enabling and compelling. It’s the compelling part that can lead us into all kinds of dysfunction. The price paid by relentlessly driven pastors — not to mention their spouses, families and churches — is commonly too large a cost to bear.
Farming within communities
The final observation is the reminder to young farmers that they farm within communities … always. No successful farmer flys solo. Given the hours that farmers work, often alone and hidden from public view, it is easy to see farming as a work of solitude. According to these writers, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Farming is a work of connections and relationships. Farming is a community sustained through time, a relationship to land, place and story that only has meaning when those connections are named and nurtured. This is so at the most local level — in towns and communities where land, place and work are shared — as well as in a broader sense: the provider of food, the preparer of food and the consumer of food are all connected. It is as though the farmer has a place at my table every night.
The American conservationist of the early twentieth century Aldo Leopold once said that land is “not a commodity belonging to us” but “a community to which we belong.” There is profound truth in this for the farmer, and truth for the pastor as well. As the farmer does not own the land, so the pastor does not own the church and its mission. We belong to it, sustained by it as we work to strengthen it. The church is a reality so much larger than we are, and in the context of a world held in God’s sustaining hands. We play just a small part in a much grander work.
Here’s the book
Martha Hodgkins, ed. Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017.
And a great related video too