Backwater hicks. Rednecks. Trash. Uneducated hillbillies. I have heard all these labels and more applied to people in rural areas. People dismissed simply because of their postal code.
Having spent most of my life in small towns and rural areas, I have come to love living close to nature, to farms, open fields and big skies. When I think of the many farmers I have known, there is a deeply profound wisdom that comes from their lives.
Most of the farmers I have known are simple and beautiful people. They work hard, they love their families, and they enjoy their lives and work. Due to the nature of farming, many live in rural areas near their fields and animals.
For many, their day-to-day work isn’t lived in a metropolis surrounded by thousands of people and their varying opinions. As such, given that they don’t have to watch urban homelessness every day or deal with sub-par public transportation, it can seem like they are ignorant of those matters that mean a great deal to a lot of people. So these lovely farmers get dismissed as being as unknowledgeable just because their field of knowledge is different than others. And it is true that some might remark, “I don’t know about all of that stuff” and then go back to work planting their fields or harvesting their crops.
And this really is my point. They get back to work doing what they know they should. Our polarized world has a tendency to spend a lot of time talking, debating, arguing and fighting. We try to figure everything out, to understand it all, to defend our positions and convince everyone else to be like us. We debate back and forth about the minutia of politics and ideologies and spend time endlessly quarrelling over debatable things. But what if we set aside so many of those squabbles and simply got back to the work that we know we should be doing? To loving God and loving others, to being a good neighbour, to living honestly and being kind?
Ecclesiastes 11:4–6 (NLT) says, “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest. Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things. Plant your seed in the morning and keep busy all afternoon, for you don’t know if profit will come from one activity or another—or maybe both.”
No matter if we are urban or rural, a farmer or a philanthropist, none of us will know everything, and if we wait to do what we know is right until all the conditions are perfect, we will never do anything. So let’s take a lesson from the farmer. You don’t have to know everything, and you don’t need to understand or be right about everything in order to follow God. Let’s get back to work.
Many years ago, when the earth was younger than it is today, there was a beautiful garden full of trees producing edible fruits and nuts in what is now the man-made desert of Iraq. Near the junction of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, near the present day city of Bagdad, there was a life sustaining landscape.
The Garden of Eden is the picture of an idyllic situation. The images evoke peace, contentment, fulfillment, shade on a hot day, clear water, good food and a close relationship with the Divine. I think this is something all of us would want. Certainly I do. We have, however, strayed far from that idyllic situation. Is it possible to find our way back?
Care for the land has meant different things to people over time. I believe most farmers actually want to care for the land and believe they are caring for the land by good crop husbandry today. Care for the land in Old Testament times was linked to obeying God: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways then I will hear from heaven forgive their sins and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).
More recently, care for the land in the 1950s meant black summer fallow. You were a good farmer if you kept a field bare and “at rest” for a whole year. Today we know that keeping green plants out of a field is not caring for the land; it is destroying the land.
Farmers either did not know or did not acknowledge that they were actually destroying the land by these practises. My question is, does God accept claimed ignorance as an excuse? I know the state does not.
In Isaiah 1 God says He doesn’t need or want our meaningless offerings. He needs us to learn to do right, to seek justice, to encourage the oppressed, to defend the cause of the fatherless, to plead the case of the widow. If we are obedient, we will eat the best from the land (Isaiah 1:1-18).
Doing right is for our own good. There is a common thread that links all of these behaviours. It is our attitude and how we view our relationships. If we don’t respect God we will probably not respect other people especially the weak and we will not respect the land. If, however, we do honour God we will have compassion for people, and we will care for the land.
From this reading of the prophet Isaiah we find that care for the land is a many-sided thing. It involves social issues, spiritual issues, as well as physical issues. I ask myself if God’s thistles-and-thorns curse, condemning peoples to eat of the harvest of the ground through painful toil (Gen. 3:17-19), is an inescapable fate. Or is it the condition that we find ourselves in because we disobey God? Surely God desires us to thrive. Abel in Gen. 4:1-4 is a hint to me that this may be the case.
I want to explore this topic through three questions.
Question 1: Are we caring for the land today?
Most farmers believe they are, but our almost exclusive use of annual crops in modern agriculture has led and is continuing to lead to a decline in the health of our soils. Unbroken prairie soil less than 200 years ago had an incredible 15 to 23% organic matter. Today that organic matter, which is the source of life and health, is down to 1 to 6%. We have destroyed 40 to 60% of the organic matter in our land in less than 200 years.
Question 2: Why are we destroying our land?
An annual plant needs to be planted each year, grows for a short 100 days, produces seed, and then dies. A perennial plant, on the other hand, can be planted once and will survive our winters. It will grow again from earliest spring to freeze up, usually more than 180 days, and thrive for many years without replanting.
About 10,000 years ago we choose to grow primarily annual crops for our food. The reasons are many. I will mention three. First, annual crops give higher grain yields than perennials. Two, we have had the luxury of cheap fossil fuel energy to power our annual cropping system, which requires 10 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. And three, we misunderstand where God is and have gradually slipped into a new Gnosticism.
On point three, that is, there is a higher valuation of the spiritual, a separation of the spiritual and the physical. There is the related belief that when everything goes “to hell in a hand-basket,” God will rescue us to heaven. We mistakenly say God is over there, we are over here, and the earth is inert material at our disposal. This view came about in the 1600’s when science forced God out of His creation.
Isaiah warned that if Israel did not follow the precepts of God the land would be laid waste and be desolate; but if Israel obeyed His commandments the land would be rich, flowing with milk and honey sustaining them indefinitely. Modern day prophets are saying the same thing.
Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (revised 2011) documents why civilizations fail. Even though the causes are numerous and complex, the common theme in all collapsed civilizations, starting with the first Sumerian civilization, is the unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources. David R. Montgomery, in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2012), pinpoints that the degradation of land is the underlying cause of all collapsed societies.
Our continued dependence on annual cropping systems will lead to the eventual collapse of the North American civilization and many other annual crop based civilizations as well.
Question 3: What can we do about it?
How are we going to do this, find our way back to the garden? Mark Shepard in his book Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers (2013) describes how to find our way back to the garden for his area in Wisconsin. Mark has actually converted his farm into a thriving Garden of Eden. Both Mark in Wisconsin and myself in Manitoba are in what is known as the oak savannah. But the lessons go across Canada.
Jonah warned the Ninevites about impending doom; they listened and the doom did not come (Jonah 3:1-10). In the same way modern prophets warned us of the Y2K threat. The threat did not materialize. We ridiculed the prophets for exaggerating the problem, when it was, in fact, because we changed our systems that doom did not come. We owe these prophets respect because they saved us from disaster. So, too, today we have prophets of doom that say if we do not change how we treat the land we are in peril.
Gary Martens, BSc., P.Ag (professional agrologist), was for many years an instructor in Plant Science at the University of Manitoba, retiring in 2014. He is now practicing what he preached on his tiny farm, with a tiny house, near Kleefeld, Man. Though retired from that role, he previously served for many years as a minister within Kleefeld EMC.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference