Category Archives: Random Thoughts

A Beautiful Essay on Farm Life

I’d like to introduce you to Jennifer Dukes Lee, a journalist and contributing editor for The High Calling.  Jennifer lives in Iowa on a century farm and also blogs at Getting Down with Jesus.  She is the niece of my friend, Jackie, who hails from Iowa but has  lived in Texas for many years.   Jackie and I  met and became friends through our church in Allen, a suburb north of Dallas.  Her small town roots are deep.  Growing up on a farm shaped her into a woman with strong character, resolve and determination, and resulted in a woman worthy of admiration.   It’s been my observation that a high percentage of the folks I admire share deep roots that were often formed through rural community and  family farming.  I originally read the essay on Jackie’s Facebook page, when she proudly shared it with her friends.  In her essay, On the Seat of a Tractor,  Jennifer speaks movingly about the connections between her family and the land.

On the Seat of a Tractor

Jennifer writes about the sense of purpose and the connection to God that her family feels through farming.  I hope you take the time to click on the link to the essay and reflect on the emotions that are evoked.   If you read through the comments following the essay you find several that acknowledge that farm life is not always idyllic –  the bone tiring work and the years when the harvests were meager, the weather cruel, and the bills stacked high are recognized.  What I sense is that in spite of these frequent disappointments and hurdles, families who choose this way of life find their rewards in simple pleasures.  They seem to feel connected and strengthened through the richly detailed and colorful tapestry created as each person’s thread is woven into an intricate record of birth, death, spring planting,  fall harvests, winter cold, summer heat, feast, famine.   This interweaving  binds together those who came before and those yet to come.  Feeling closer to God through this way of life seems to be a common denominator that enables the farmer to face tribulation and find satisfaction in being a part of this cycle – “emptying and filling” (L. L. Burkat, see comments).

I have little first hand knowledge of farming.  My only experience occurred over a 3 year period after my widowed mother remarried a recently widowed life long friend.  My step father owned a 400 acre ranch in Oklahoma where he raised a 100 head of cattle.  My step father and my mother  were able to move the cattle from one pasture to another and perform most of the chores even though they were both in their 70’s.  Sometimes they called on the assistance of his daughter’s family who lived nearby.  We lived an hour away but my son and I spent some weekends and some summer days helping with basic chores like fence mending, hauling feed, and cattle round ups.  It was an experience that we relished.  It was a great proving ground for my son who was eleven when my mom remarried and fourteen when my step father died.    Those three years definitely deepened my sense of respect for the  people who choose this life.   If your way of life is inextricably tied to the land, I’d love to hear your reaction to Jennifer’s essay.  And if you have no first hand knowledge of farming,  how did you feel about her words?

Excerpts from some of the comments following Jennifer’s essay that particularly spoke to me:

“Sometimes, the sunsets of our lives are really just opportunities for the sun to rise on a new day.”

“I enjoyed the details of a farm life, both external and internal. God beautifully weaves meaning in all our lives.

All too often, I’ve felt that for something to have real purpose, it had to have the GOD label slapped on it. But I’m finding more and more, that all of our work can be worship really — even our secular work. It can all be holy and sacred, right? It’s that whole AVODAH thing that you’ve written about, Marcus. Ann Voskamp, too, has written about it. I’m in awe of that word, Avodah (a Hebrew word that means both work and worship.)

If we live an Avodah life, it all has purpose. All of it.

Really, really moving story — about the power of love and legacy and God’s good grace.

oh, jen, what a beautiful story. it does sound idyllic, i know it’s not always easy. but what a blessing to have such a family–one that works together this way, one that talks so openly. yes, what hand-me-downs your girls will have; rich stories to grow deep roots. i am in awe of such a thing. thank you for this blessing.”

Thomas Jefferson would turn over in his grave. . .

Friday, July 1,  I was listening to Science Friday on NPR.  The featured story was about Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Fathers and their gardens/farms.    The interview was titled Growing A Revolution: America’s Founding Fathers.  “Monticello garden director Peter Hatch and historian Andrea Wulf discuss how Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison helped create the uniquely American garden”.   Peter Hatch notes that Jefferson believed that the United States would be an agrarian republic.  I wonder what Jefferson and the Founding Fathers would think if they knew that the US Census no longer lists farming as an occupation? Instead, farmers are included in the catch all “other” category.  Last week I watched the documentary Ingredients.  In the film it was stated that less than 1% of Americans now farm.  I think Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers would turn over in their graves if they knew how far Americans have moved  from tending the soil.  Simply put by M. Gandhi, “To forget how to dig the Earth and to tend the Soil is to forget ourselves.”

NPR host Ira Flatow asks the question  “Where do you see the Founding Fathers – in battle, around a table signing the Declaration of Independence, or sowing seeds?”  I suppose many of us think more about Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison involved in politics and government than we  think of them as  intimately involved in nature and gardening.  I know I never really thought much about them as gardeners or how nature affected their attitudes.  At the time America declared independence, these leaders recognized the importance of  agriculture  to a successful economy and to the young nation’s identity.

Hatch, Garden Director of Monticello points out that Jefferson maintained a journal of his garden plantings, called  The Garden Book.   The word “failed” appears frequently in his writings; he was an experimenter – he documented the planting of some 89 different species, 330 varieties of vegetables, ranging from sesame to okra.  He also grew 170 varieties of fruit.   Jefferson wrote: ” In gardening the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.”  Hatch says “If Jefferson could successfully grow a new crop, one time out of 100 he considered himself a successful horticulturist. ”  Jefferson studied meteorology and supposed that farmers clearing land might have impacted weather.  It’s amazing to me that the wisdom and experience of our Founding Fathers has been lost to most Americans through the past two centuries.  Perhaps our study of history needs to include more than politics, military actions, social issues  and economics but also the environment and agriculture.

Hatch believes that Jefferson’s legacy of gardening  is that he saw plants as a vehicle of social  change –  he supported seed saving, local foods, and farmers markets.  When Jefferson was President, he tracked the arrival and departure of37 vegetables in the farmers market and was a great supporter of that market.

Wulf reports that our Founding Fathers Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison had a shared passion for nature, plants, gardens, and agriculture that was deeply woven into and very much a part of the fabric of America.  She says that at that time, nature, gardening, and agriculture were  subjects they all agreed upon.

Wulf believes that James Madison is the forgotten father of American environmentalism.  In a speech in 1818, he  tried to convince America that if it wanted to survive as a nation it would have to stop destroying forests and stop depleting the soils of Virginia.  She says Madison believed that Man had to return to Nature what Man took from Nature.  He spoke  about the balance of nature and how easily it could be destroyed.  I’m sure both Madison and Jefferson would be appalled at our country’s lack of consideration for the balance of nature and the failure to practice sustainability in all aspects of our lives, and particularly in agriculture.

Wulf relates this story:  In the summer of 1776  as Washington faced 30,000 British troops arriving  in New York  with about half the man power, or 15,000 men.  Imposing British war ships were sailing into the harbor.  Washington sat down and wrote a letter to his estate manager instructing him to design a new garden.  He specified that it contain only  native species in order to create a uniquely American garden.   Wulf feels that at the moment America faced the almighty British army,  Washington was declaring his own independence with the design of his garden.

These are just a few stories of how passionate our Founding Fathers were about nature and agriculture.  I’m looking forward to reading Wulf’s book,  Founding Gardeners.  It’s true that while they toiled in their gardens, they relied on slave labor to provide the majority of human power.   But their involvement in the daily routines and decisions provided them an understanding of the value of agriculture and nature.  I can’t imagine any of our Founding Fathers  finding much significance in the daily routines of most Americans – running errands, shopping at the mall, watching TV, playing video games, texting.  Where in our experiences are we gaining life skills for coping with failure or understanding the mysteries of nature?

I heard a discussion on the radio the other day that resonates with me.  When we worked the land and worked with our hands, failure was tangible.  You could hold it in your hands.  In today’s society where most  jobs are service oriented or have output that is difficult to measure, failure can easily be ambiguous.  It seems that one consequence of our disconnect from physical labor is the lost opportunity to experience tangible failure. I believe that this experience is vital in developing character traits that have been synonymous with America.  Somehow we need to reconnect with  the realities and experiences of our agrarian past.  I know  folks that were raised on a farm and don’t miss it one bit.   However, while growing up taking care of crops and animals, these people learned to appreciate life’s realities and the value of hard work.  They carry determination, ingenuity and persistence into their lives beyond the farm.  Unfortunately I think that many of us and especially our children have grown up believing their efforts should produce success.  Without concrete measurements, it’s easy to discount the existence of failure.   It is difficult to understand that failure can be a learning experience and  to accept Jefferson’s statement, ” In gardening the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.”

If 1% of our population is working to feed us and the remaining 99% are ignorant of even basic knowledge of nature and agriculture, is that wise?  How do we encourage the other 99% to somehow weave their personal threads back into the fabric of America?  Some may believe that our country’s fabric has changed irrevocably and that there’s no need to re-integrate it into a weave from 200 years ago.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If you believe that the fabric of our past was woven from agriculture and reverence for nature for good reasons, how do we  restore it?  I offer this thought.  What better place for learning the rhythms of life than in a garden? In the past ten years, I’ve seen countless children terrified of bees, afraid of rain, having no experience with an earth worm.  They frequently enter a gardening experience timidly or fearfully, but often come out with new skills and an appreciation for foods they would have never otherwise considered.   I’ve recently become involved with a community garden and have found joy in watching the reactions of children who see vegetable plants for the first time.  There is a trend towards more community gardens; that is a positive sign.  I hope those neophyte gardeners stick it out and find the challenge rewarding.

I won’t begin to claim that gardening on my deck and in community beds is synonymous with farming or animal husbandry as an occupation.  But as Karen in her Back Roads Journal so aptly said,  “People that enjoy gardening spend lots of time outdoors in all kinds of weather, be it good or bad. The work they do digging, planting, weeding and watering is a labor of love. . . Gardeners endure a trial by fire of sorts. Drought, monsoon rains, high winds, hail, assorted diseases, insects, deer, rabbits, groundhogs, etc.”  And if you, like others, accept the challenge from Mother Nature and see the garden as a continuous experiment, you are getting a sample, albeit a small one, of the joys and tribulations experienced by the small group that still remains involved in agriculture.   Yes, your involvement is on a much smaller scale than that of our local farmers.  Maybe your participation  will encourage some of our children to move towards agriculture and nature.  I think it would be a great idea  for our country to begin a Farm Corps.  Young people could serve two years as an intern on a farm or ranch.  Our government and the farmer could work out a reasonable split for payment of their stipend.  What do you think?  Would a Farm Corps be beneficial to our nation and our citizens?

I also see the light of understanding at farmers markets, in the interaction between the hard working farmer and the curious customers, many accompanied by their children.  We ask questions of our farmers – What is this? Why are there holes in the leaves? Does it matter? When will you have strawberries?  When do you plant potatoes?  Why do sweet potatoes need to cure?  How do you know when they’re ready to pick?  Why and how do you collect seeds?  All these answers were once part of the basic knowledge of most Americans.  Most arriving here as immigrants from their home countries brought precious seeds.  And everyone knew you didn’t eat the seed potatoes.

Supporting your local farmers market at least gives you an opportunity to experience sustainably grown foods and get to know the people who work to bring the food to you.  Maybe it will also encourage you to grow a vegetable or two.  Another option is to participate in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)  group by purchasing a share of a farmer’s harvest.

Hope each of you and your families have a fun filled July 4!  Spend some time to reflect on our agrarian past and what it means to our future.  Should each of us make an effort to participate more in raising our food?  Have we lost forever our agrarian connections?  Let me know your thoughts.