Letter to a Young Farmer

The world is slowly dying because we abuse it. We are killing each other with poison-laced foods we know to be unhealthy. You represent the kind of skill and affection we all need.

Appears in Spring 2011 Issue: Letters to the Young
March 1 st 2011

Dear Edwin,

You may not know it yet, but you are a beacon of faith, hope, and love. The fact that you want to farm means that you are joining hands with God in the work of nurturing, protecting, and cherishing the soil that makes all our living possible.

God is the first, the best, and the essential Farmer. As the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 65:9-13, God is constantly visiting the earth, watering and enriching it, providing people with grain, blessing the soil's growth, producing so much food that God's wagon overflows with rich abundance. Is it any wonder that the hills, meadows, and valleys "shout and sing together for joy"? God has made creation a delectable feast, and you get to help God as the host.

You should also know, however, that as a servant and witness to this Farmer God you will be surrounded by much darkness and derision. Very few people appreciate farmers or understand the work farmers do. Remember that you live in a country where there are more prison inmates than farmers. Too many people hear the word "farmer" only in the context of a joke or derogatory comment.

Scripture is the champion of farmers. The people who inhabited the biblical world were farmers. Several of its teachers and prophets, folks like Amos and Hosea, came from the ranks of farmers. It should not surprise you, then, that in one of the earliest biblical scenes we find God playing in the dirt. Genesis 2:7-19 records that God made the first human being by turning the soil around in his hands, gently breathing on it, so that this earthling could be a living being. But not just the human being—God works with the ground to make plants grow. He even forms the animals and birds out of the same ground.

Clearly, God loves dirt. He is on his knees in the soil, intimately involved in its countless bio-chemical processes, furthering life. It should amaze you to find God described here as a Gardener: "And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east" (Genesis 2:8). Of the many ways that God could have been described—as a warrior, king, or manager—Scripture here presents God as one who creates life not through violence or force but through planting flowers, grains, and trees. God is the Gardener and Farmer who waters and weeds the world. God is the Good Shepherd who provides for his sheep and searches for every lost lamb.

God does not farm alone. He invites us to join in his farming work, and by doing so, to contribute to the beauty, fertility, and fragrance of the world. "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). Farming work is not demeaning or cursed work. How could it be, since it is God's primordial work and joy? Eden means "delight," suggesting that our world is not supposed to be turned into a toxic dump. All our work, even when it is not farming work, should increase the experience of delight for every creature. As a farmer, you have the opportunity to grow and share God's love made delectable as food.

This brings us to the important question of the quality of the work. What kind of farming will you do? When you start out, you will be under intense pressure to farm with an industrial logic in mind. Industrial agriculture says that you must do whatever you can to increase productivity, even if it means that soils are degraded and eroded, waters are polluted, animals are abused, and agricultural workers are unjustly treated and compensated. You will be asked to go into great financial debt so that you can purchase equipment, infrastructure, seed, fertilizers, herbicides, steroids, growth hormones, and medicines. In a manner quite unlike God's farming techniques, the fertility of this sort of "farm" will have to be purchased, rather than drawn from soil that has been patiently and lovingly tended.

Farming does not have to be performed in a destructive or degrading manner. You can grow food in ways that honour the land and its eaters. But it will require you to get out of the industrial box. It will require you to forge partnerships with eaters (and perhaps the church) who care about how the food was grown and how the animals were raised. It will take greater attention, harder work, and more patience to understand how plants thrive and what keeps animals healthy. But in making this effort you will be joining with God's constant, caring ways with the world, ways that take no shortcuts and make no excuses.

The church needs you now more than ever before. The world is slowly dying because we abuse it. We are killing each other with poison-laced foods we know to be unhealthy. You represent the kind of skill and affection we all need if we are to learn to participate in God's healing, feeding, and reconciling of "all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Colossians 1:20). You open the possibility for the church to see itself as involved in the soul and soil business. You forge an indispensable path in which we may live into the image of God the Farmer.

Sincerely,
Norman Wirzba

Topics: Vocation
 

Dr. Norman Wirzba teaches courses in theology, ecology, and agrarian studies at Duke Divinity School. He just finished a book called Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating that will be published next spring. At home he likes to bake and play guitar; prefers to be outside, playing in his garden or on a basketball court or football field; and best of all enjoys a great meal with family and friends.

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