Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Interview with the Farmer

My father and grandfather spent significant portions of their lives on farms.  I, on the other hand, grew up in an area where the only thing that was being grown was under a heat lamp in my neighbor Dwayne’s garage.  Most of us don’t give farming a second thought.  Maybe we don’t believe it but we still act as though the food we eat was made in some back room at your local Wal-Mart.  Come to think of it, that may be the case but you get my point. 

Recently I had the chance to ask my friend Shane a few questions about farming, why farmers matter and how we can better appreciate the fruits of their labors.

Our country is moving further and further away from its agricultural roots.  Should we be concerned? 

Yes I think so.  In the U.S., most families (people) are now 3 generations removed from the farm and the average age of the U.S. farmer is 57--and rising, meanwhile the farm population is shrinking (less than 2% of the pop., our numbers are low enough now that "farmer/rancher" is no longer listed as an occupation on the census survey.  We are now part of the other people). As a producer this can be quite scary for several reasons.  Primarily, and I don't use this in a pejorative way, is fear and ignorance.  Ignorance is simply a lack of education.  Fear, in this context, is really just laziness masked as activism.  As we as a nation get further away from our agricultural roots, we as a people are less educated, or less aware about where our food comes from.  So many people I talk to literally think food comes from the grocery store.  That's it.  Need more bread or milk?  Go to the store and get it.  The end.  It's quite sad actually.  And, many of our "leaders" and policy makers think the same way.  That's why I say it can be quite scary.  So we as farmers and ranchers have to be more proactive in telling our story and simply educating the non farm folks at all levels to the who, what, when, where, why, and how of agriculture.  That's one of the reasons why each year we have all the area 5th graders come to our farm for Ag Day, and it's one of the reasons I decided to occasionally blog on this topic.  We have to be the voice of agriculture--not documentary films like "Food Inc." that while provocative, only tell one side of the story.  Organizations such as Farm Bureau (who do a lot more than sell insurance), U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, and even Mike Rowe on his show "Dirty Jobs" are acting and working to bridge this disconnect between farmers and farming, and to show the general public that the American farmer by large has at heart the best interests of the land, the environment, the animal, and the end user.

Why is it important to buy local whenever possible?

Well I think it's certainly good to buy local, or participate in community gardens and food co-ops.  One, you are supporting the local economy and local producers.  Two, you are putting a face to the producer of the product you are eating.  That interaction with the producer can be great.  You can ask them questions about how they grow their product, where they grow it and so on, and really develop a good and positive relationship.  Three, generally speaking, it's going to be a much fresher product, and taste better.  So yes, farmers markets and such should be supported by the local community.  However, these types of enterprises often appeal to a niche market.  Food and growth experts tell us that global population is rising at such a pace, that farmers will have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in all the years combined since the inception of farming.  This is a monumental and historic task set before us.  I say all that to say that yes, let's continue to support locally grown and community gardens etc, but let's not be naive enough to think that these alone will solve our growing and future food related issues.   

Many people worship creation and many people seem bent on destroying it.  As a Christian who farms, what do you feel is your responsibility in caring for the land that God has given to you?

I love this question.  I believe that much of the answer lies within the question itself.  I am responsible for caring for the tracts of land (and all land in reality) that God has seen fit to entrust us with.  I think as a Christian, I have been given a biblical mandate to watch over and care for the land (Gen. 1:28-30, 1 Cor. 4:2).  This all stems from the recognition that God created and owns everything (Ps. 24:1, Ps. 50:10).  I'm simply a manager of these resources and my goal is to leave it to the next generation better than it was when I received it.  God is glorified even in seemingly simple and insignificant acts such as this.  Dominion and stewardship rightly understood do not mean domination or destruction.  Nor do they necessarily mean "organic" or "green."  Those are two words that are so loosely thrown around they are void of any significant meaning.  Many well meaning, well intentioned Christians, I think, stumble all over this issue in the name of "Creation Care" or "Christian Ecology."  Again, these are not bad things.  The problem comes when someone reads say, a Wendell Berry or similar type author book, and then takes that and tries to apply some form of "Gospel centered" environment tag line to it, and before you know it, we have denominations unwittingly writing position papers on the evils of incandescent light bulbs and making resolutions for Christ centered global warming response teams.  Good stewards recognize, again, that we are to manage our temporary possessions to the best of our abilities and teach others to do the same, while at the same time not being intentionally neglectful or harmful to that which is entrusted us.  This discussion is so often framed in an either/or format, when in reality it very often can be an and/both format.  We can drill oil and protect the caribou.  We can spray pesticides on crops and still have safe, clean food.  We can't let our environmental conscience be guilted into bad laws and policies b/c some folks prefer Prius's to SUV's.  

Do the big box stores like Wal-Mart help or hurt local farmers like you?

They don't hurt, and if anything they help local producers.  I have a friend who grows pumpkins and he sells them directly to our local Wal-Mart. I have another friend who grew sweet corn and watermelons and sold directly to area grocery stores.  They get paid a premium b/c Wal-Mart knows exactly what there getting, when there getting it, and from whom they are getting it, and it's not something that is being trucked in from a 1,000 miles away when it's grown 5 miles away. Wal-Mart and other chains are a business and they care a lot about public image.  If they can put pretty little signs in their produce sections saying these items are grown locally, people eat that stuff up.  Look, Wal-Mart, Cosco, Kroger etc. care about making a profit and protecting their image.  They also swing a huge stick, especially when it comes to peoples purchasing decisions.  If consumers are demanding product A instead of B, what do you think Wal-Mart is going to do?  That is totally acceptable. So, if a local producer can get hooked up with a box store and provide a commodity that people want, the folks at Wal-Mart are smart enough to recognize a good business deal, and that ultimately is good for that producer(s).

Floods, droughts and tornadoes probably mean more to you than someone in any other profession and for most farmers I know, no matter how good the weather is, it's never good enough.  How has farming affected the way you trust in the supremacy of God?

Well, it is usually cause for a lot of repenting on my part.  Arguably two of the most important factors to a farmers success are completely out of his control:  weather and markets.  More often than I care to admit, I find myself questioning God on too much rain, not enough rain, rain at the wrong time, too hot, too cold and so on.  What have I done?  I've committed a radical form of idolatry.  I've put myself in the place of God and I'm telling God that I know better.  I often shutter at my own foolishness.  So yes, this is a profession that can radically effect ones faith, and without a solid grounding and firm belief in the sovereignty of God, well, that person will feel a lot of anxiety and despair.  Farming can take big swings from highs to lows in relative short amounts of time, and ultimately what I hope this does is push me to prayer, praise, humility, and thankfulness during both those bleak looking times and the rewarding times of walking in high cotton.  As per the guys who say it's never good enough, well I know a lot of those guys, and quite frankly, I don't really like being around them.  No matter how good things are, or how good a year it was, they somehow manage to only speak doom and gloom.  Those guys are annoying and give farmers a bad name.  Either shut up and move on or get into another profession to complain about.  One thing I rarely hear come from my dad's lips is complaints.  Some things I do hear pretty often from him are words of thankfulness and blessings and optimism.  Things are going to work out one way or the other.  It may not be the way you wanted, but having a trust in the supremacy of God is ultimate, for without that no one anywhere would farm.     

Talk to the guy that lives on a quarter of an acre in the suburbs.  Is it important for him to grow something, even if it's a few tomatoes hanging from his porch? 

Sure, yes grow something.  It's pretty easy to start, fun, rewarding, kids can do it with you, and how many things can a person do whereby they can daily see the fruit of their labors?  That's one thing I love about farming--you get almost immediate results of your actions, and then you get to constantly tweak and fine tune throughout the year.  The suburbanite can do the same thing on a smaller scale and watch with amazement as nature does what nature does.  Plus, people just need to get their hands and clothes dirty from time to time.  Folks who are afraid to get dirt on their hands, or kids who are afraid to hold a worm--I don't know what it is, but something is fundamentally wrong with that.

How can caring for a garden, large or small, be beneficial to biblical manhood or womanhood?

Adam & Eve, the first farmers, started out in a garden, and were placed there to work and take care of the garden.  We'll they blew it and now I have weeds in my fields :)  Caring for a garden, or an animal, or a 57 Chevy for that matter--several things can be going on here.  Perhaps a husband and wife are building a garden wall - working, lifting, shoveling, sweating - and in the course of this they are serving one another and modeling a healthy marriage relationship to their onlooking kids.  Perhaps a dad is showing his son how to plow and chop and dig and weed and instilling in his son an appreciation for a strong work ethic and a faithfulness that tiny seed planted grows into large fruit.  Maybe mom is helping her daughter take care of newborn kittens and modeling to her tender care and lovingkindness for something fragile and dependent, which will serve that daughter later in life when she has her first child that is fragile and dependent on her tender care and lovingkindness.  Or maybe an older man in the community is teaching a younger man who never had a father figure, thru conversation while they work to restore a car, how to be a man who leads, protects, and provides for his family.  Perhaps, thru the simple, ordinary, mundane routine of life, even something as plain as caring for a garden, conversations are happening, relationships are being built, seeds are being planted and roots are delving deep into something that is authentic, lasting, and true.  Something that will help men and women in fulfilling their God ordained roles.  Perhaps.

Shane Burchfiel runs a family farm in Tennessee where he grows corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat.  He blogs regularly at Before the Store.

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