The Ministry of Quaker Farmers

Sun Moon Farm in Rindge, N.H. Photos courtesy Sun Moon Farms.

Is farming the land in an organic and regenerative way simply a technical skill—a kind of trade or craft? Certainly, it’s at least that. Is it a personal lifestyle as well, known as the agrarian life? It’s also that. But in recent conversations with organic and regenerative farmers who are also practicing Quakers, I’ve begun to see that it can be even more: something deeper, a ministry of a sort. This mode of farming is as much about building community and creating opportunities for others to live lives of integrity as it is about food production and lifestyle.

I am not a farmer, though I’ve lived and worked on a handful of farms. Last summer, I worked three days a week on an organic farm and was exhausted from the labor the other four days. My grandfather was a dairy farmer, but he wasn’t very good at it because he preferred to sit in the haymow reading theology. We grew much of our own food when I was a child, but it wasn’t my parents’ profession; my father was a minister. I’ve followed in my family line, with a love of growing food and farming, but with an understanding that my vocation is in theology and teaching.

This passion for faith, farming, and education led me to Earlham School of Religion last year to study for a master’s in divinity. When I moved to Indiana, I quickly got myself a little plot at Miller Farm, the Earlham campus farm, so I could grow some kale. This led to many inspiring conversations with Anthony Noble, Miller Farm’s manager, who calls the type of farming he and the students are doing there “Quaker Natural Farming.” Our conversations about the spiritual (Quaker) aspects of farming led me to wonder how other Quaker farmers think about their work. I wanted to know: how did their Quakerism inform their farming practice? So I set out to interview some Quaker farmers and hear their insights.

It wasn’t about love of plants or love of solitude, though those came up in some places. The most rewarding part of farming was relationships.

As I interviewed these Quaker farmers, an interesting theme emerged. When I asked farmers why they continued to farm and what the most rewarding part of being a farmer was, their answers were similar. It wasn’t about love of plants or love of solitude, though those came up in some places. The most rewarding part of farming was relationships. Mostly, it was relationships with the people they grow food for, but also the relationships with the people they worked the land with, including their own families.

Steven Lee, the farm manager of Quaker Oaks Farm in Visalia, California, told a story in our interview that illustrates this recurring theme of the way community motivates the Quaker farmers. He described the most rewarding part of being a farmer this way:

that process of putting it all together and being able to provide it to someone who really needs food at a fair price. And then they come back to you, and they’re like, “Man, that was the best tomato!”

He then told a story about how an old Italian woman had gotten ahold of some of his tomatoes and sent her son to him to get some more because she thought they were so delicious. “I was beaming for weeks off of that! That’s the best thing ever. This older lady who recognizes good flavor. That’s awesome! That’s my biggest joy.”

This vision of the farmer as a cultivator of relationships is a radically different understanding of the work of being a farmer from the vision most of us have. In our cultural imagination, it’s a pretty solitary job: driving a tractor, hoeing a row, herding a flock. This concept of the solitary farmer follows the model of a factory worker: the land is the factory, and the farmer uses the machines to create a product. But the Quaker farmers I’ve talked to see their work as a cultivator of community. It’s as if this work is more akin to being a teacher or social worker or minister; it’s the work of bringing people together and into relationship, not just with their food but with the land their food comes from, and with each other.

The model of the farm as a factory—the land as the grounds that we mine for all its nutrients until it runs out and then is abandoned—was amplified in the mid-twentieth century with the development of chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and increased technology to spread them. Farms were able to consolidate and expand so that one farmer could manage enormous plots of land. It led to lower food prices and large factory farms, pushing smaller farmers out of business. The rise of mega farms has had devastating consequences for the living beings, both plants and animals, that live on these farms. Monocropping leads to increased pesticide use and chemical fertilizers that destroy the soil and entire insect and small rodent populations. We all know the horrors of factory-farmed animals. For a more detailed look at the devastating effect that consolidated farming has had on our nation, read Chris McGreal’s “How America’s Food Giants Swallowed the Family Farms” in the March 9, 2019 issue of The Guardian.

Sun Moon Farms.

This commitment to life was echoed by every farmer I talked with.

The Quaker farmers I’ve talked to are doing small-scale organic or regenerative farming. Regenerative farming is a way of farming that emphasizes building up the soil, not using it up as a commodity. Wendy Carpenter of Christopher Farm, an organic farmer in Modoc, Indiana, shared clearly this dual love that she has for her community and for the land. In response to the question of what’s the most rewarding part of being a farmer, she answered:

Relationships I have with people: my customers. It’s probably the most rewarding. But I also get pretty excited about trying to improve the soil, too. So getting cover crops established in the fall is always really exciting for me and seeing the soil gradually improve.

While Steven Lee, the farmer in California, talks about the fair price of the food he sells, he also talks about being fair to the living beings on the land. His work is organized around creating habitats for all manner of living things. This commitment to life was echoed by every farmer I talked with.

Miller Farm, Richmond, Ind.

They all struggle: working long hours and living below the poverty line. They all struggle with the desire to pay their workers a living wage when they themselves aren’t making one.

Every farmer I interviewed discussed the constant need to make difficult decisions about doing what’s right for the land and the animals while also surviving financially. I have worked and lived on a handful of small farms and have many friends who run small, organic farms, and they all struggle: working long hours and living below the poverty line. They all struggle with the desire to pay their workers a living wage when they themselves aren’t making one. In deciding to do what’s right for the land and the animals, they have all ended up barely surviving financially. Here, again, we see the work of farming being about relationships and a commitment to justice for people and the land.

We are all trapped in this economic system. It’s hard to justify spending so much more for food, and for some of us, it’s simply impossible. I propose that the work these farmers are doing is vital to our spiritual lives. The work that they are doing is a ministry. Craig Jensen of Sun Moon Farm in Rindge, New Hampshire, describes the type of farming his family does as “community farming.” This farming emphasizes not only the community of non-human life but also of human life in the creation of events and gathering places on the farm. Jensen spoke passionately about the connection between the Religious Society of Friends’ support of farmers and the testimonies. He asked the prophetic question, “We’re called to peace and sustainability and simplicity. How are we leaning into that in all of our ways?”

With his call for the Religious Society of Friends to honor our testimonies through food, he points out that food should be the place where we start in making all of our decisions:

[If Quakers are] going to do a retreat program or a weekend workshop series, how do we feed people there? That’s the first thing we should do. If you can’t do that one right, you’re out of good order! You’ve broken the covenant right at the start.

local organic and regenerative farmers enable us to be in right order with our peace testimony.

Small scale organic and regenerative farmers allow us to live our testimonies. The way we eat is a choice we make at least three times a day. Local small-scale organic and regenerative farmers bring us food that allows us to choose to eat with integrity, to eat in a way that honors that of God in everything. John Woolman spoke of simplicity as the way we order our lives around our leadings. Simplicity sounds easy, but it requires some great sacrifices, as the life of Woolman demonstrates.

Organic and regenerative farming is also a way to support the community of all the life living on the land. While all farmers certainly work to combat pests, these farmers do it with a view of the interconnection of all beings.

Most conventional agriculture also mistreats farm workers: paying below minimum wage, demanding work in unsafe conditions, and exposing them to toxic chemicals. What would our food be if it were grown with a concern for justice and equality?

Finally, local organic and regenerative farmers enable us to be in right order with our peace testimony. When we buy local produce, we are using less fossil fuel to transport our food. The less we use fossil fuels, the more we are taking away the occasion of all war. Supporting these farmers works for peace and justice.

The label of minister is not as important as our community understanding of the work that farmers do and our support of their work.

Local organic and regenerative farmers bring us into right order with all of our testimonies. I propose that we shift our view of the work of farmers, not seeing them as simply providing a product but as ministering. What does it mean to be a minister? It starts by naming the spiritual gifts people offer and then honoring their calling to use those gifts in service to the Quaker community and to the wider world. Do we recognize the gifts that our farmer Friends bring to the earth, to our Quaker community, and our broader communities? How can we honor and support these gifts?

The more practical question we need to ask ourselves in our Quaker community is, how do I support the work of my local organic and regenerative farmer? I’m fairly certain that many Friends, as they are able, shop for local, organic food at farmers’ markets and CSAs (community-supported agriculture). When I asked the farmers how their meetings supported their work, they all expressed gratitude for how well-supported they are. What I propose here is not just shopping at farmers markets and supporting the farmers as producers of products (though this is still important) but a deeper understanding of the importance of the work of organic and regenerative farmers.

Most importantly, understanding the work of the farmer as ministry should not require any additional or different work for the farmer! Whether or not an individual farmer wants to assume that identity is an open question. The label of minister is not as important as our community understanding of the work that farmers do and our support of their work.

Perhaps this looks like farmer support committees. These committees can advocate for farmers at quarterly and yearly meetings (since most farmers are busiest during the summer when our yearly meetings happen). These committees can organize volunteers or internship opportunities for members of the community; they can help farmers coordinate food for larger Quaker gatherings. These support committees can take some of the load of the logistics of community organizing off of the farmer, so the farmer can engage in the work of educating and connecting with community in addition to the intense labor of growing food.

Meetings can also consider ways to release farmers from their financial burdens, so they can better serve their community (both the non-human communities on the land and the human communities connecting through food). Releasing farmers from some of their financial burdens also allows their nutritious, local, organic food to be more accessible to lower income folks. Could a Quaker community organize a way to have those who are able to buy two shares of a CSA, one of which could be donated to someone of lesser financial means? These are beginning suggestions for work that is both individual and depends upon the discernment of the farmer within the community.

All the farmers I have interviewed so far in this project spoke of their work as something of a calling. They have all made great financial and physical sacrifices to do this work because they know it is the right thing to do. I’m suggesting that we honor their calling as a ministry, and also see that we who aren’t farmers have a calling as well. Our calling is to be in community with the work of the farmers who are offering us opportunities to live in right order with our testimonies through food.

Rachel Van Boven

Rachel Van Boven is a student at Earlham School of Religion. She has been a regular attender of Quaker meetings for eight years. Her home is Bellingham, Wash., 15 miles from the land her grandfather farmed.

10 thoughts on “The Ministry of Quaker Farmers

  1. This is very interesting because it makes me think of Millard Fuller and his brethren who founded Habitat for Humanity and then moved into the Fuller Center for Housing based in Americus, Georgia. Fuller (who passed away in 2009) spoke often of the “Theology of the Hammer,” referring to Christ in Acts, speaking about how our thoughts alone are the best thoughts when accompanied by work. The Fuller Center, like Habitat is devoted to the creation of affordable housing, but the folks there tell us they are “unabashedly Christian and enthusiastically ecumenical. When they build a house, it is done by volunteers who create homes and fully engage the hammer in fellowship. As with the garden, love is the key to the action to the creation. Check it out.

  2. So good to read this. Getting the basic right is essential.

    It reminds me of reading William Penn’s letter to his wife, when he was awaiting the right winds for the ship to take him to America for the first time. Of course it was a long and dangerous journey so he sent lots of advice in case he should not return. This included educating the children (boys and girls) in such a way that they could earn their own keep, preferably by growing or making things.

    Still very relevant today, when so many of us are alienated from the land and the means of subsistance, in cities.

    Thank you.

  3. So important.

    We are participating in an economic system that doesn’t support sustainable, healthy farming, and leaves many people poorly fed. Many Quaker farmers are also caught in this treadmill, with big investments in land, equipment, chemicals, confinement facilities, and harmful farm programs — typically with big debt. Getting off the treadmill seems impractical and even impossible — and they see Quaker fingers pointing at them.

    Change is coming slowly and painfully, as this fine article points out.

    To transition, we can all push for farm programs that nurture healthy food production and restoration of soil and water quality. Those of us who can afford it can put down the extra dollars to buy local, organic food. We can educate ourselves and others about the terrible dilemmas facing all farmers. We can support research that enhances good farming practices. We can hold chemical industries accountable for their perfidy, with full airing of harm done by their herbicides and pesticides and the systems that give rise to them.

    Let’s reach out to organic and regenerative farmers — and to struggling farmers who aren’t there yet. .

  4. Wonderful project.. Needs to be implemented world wide.. All quakers should buy the idea. Am moses from kenya.

  5. Reading your article makes me want to shake your hands and say “true words” like we do here in Jamaica. This article effectively challenge and could very well engage a wide cross-section of Quakers in different cultures. Recognizing our testimonies at work as the life-style of others who may not even know of the Religious Society of Friends could be a Yearly Meeting surviving skill.Here in Jamaica the “Rasta man” comes to mind.

    I see workshops drawing on “Woolman heritage” and exploring collective advocacy strategies and capacities with reference to your article.

  6. As a member of the Visalia Friends Meeting, and someone who was involved in the launch of Quaker Oaks Farm (as well as confronting the problems of agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley), I wanted to thank Rachel and the farmers – particularly my friend, Steven Lee – for sharing their wisdom and experience in this article. Food is obviously a path to transforming ourselves and the world, of realizing health and well being, of sustaining ourselves in balance with the earth, of building and sustaining community.

  7. Rachel, Your article gives me “food for thought” as we move our home the year back to the farm (after40 years of living in another state). When I visit a Friends meeting for the first time, I closely observe the way they eat. It always tells me a lot about what they truly value. Looking at Quakerism through our relationship with food is a brilliant way to frame our practice. I have been wanting to simplify my lifestyle since becoming a Friend 9 years ago. When I reimagine my life through the lens of the SPICES, I have a warm and hopeful feeling. Thank you for contributing positively to my process through your interview.

  8. My father was a farmer for nearly all of his 95 years, and became a Quaker at 30. He was not eloquent about his philosophy of farming or anything else. Although he did not say so, he loved farming, he loved his farm, he loved his animals, his gardens and his woods. How did we know this? By seeing him treat them just as he treated us, his children – devoting his time and energy to provide us with what we needed to flourish.

    He was born on the farm and died on it, and I believe that he, like I, considered it a part of his family, not a possession. He never modernized or scaled up with the hopes of making money; he made improvements when he saw that they would make it possible to do things better or, at times, to take some of the burden of work from his body. Nevertheless, he worked harder physically at 85 than I did at 55.

    He was one of the most satisfied people I have known.

  9. Grassroots agroecology and reforestation are among the very few kinds of geo-engineering that would be really effective.

    We need a new institution, where people could ‘marry’ their land such that their relationship to it would be as revered and legally and economically protected as the traditional marriage bond.

  10. Rachel Van Boven – would you personally be interested in taking over a ranch (has been a spiritual retreat place since 2000) 654 acres? I intend to put the land itself into a trust – I am getting old – thereby ensuring the purpose for which it was created.

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