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Why farm practice matters to congregations

Longtime sustainable-ag advocate speaks at Luther Seminary

Some of your congregation’s members might remember the Dust Bowl. Drought turned soil to powder. Wind blew it away. Laundry blackened on clotheslines, and wheat farmers’ rich topsoil all but vanished.
That’s the setting in which Frederick Kirschenmann grew up, on a farm in south-central North Dakota — well north of the worst-hit Dust Bowl areas but close enough to make an indelible point with his father.
The father made the point with his son. “I still remember,” the younger Kirschenmann says now. “When I was five years old, he had his finger stuck out at me telling me how important it was to take care of the land.”
Kirschenmann went on to Yankton [South Dakota] College to study religion and then returned to farming. Another family runs his place, but Kirschenmann still goes back to help with the harvest.

Frederick Kirschenmann, a religion and philosophy professor at Iowa State University, and former farmer, is an advocate for sustainable agriculture. Photo provided by Frederick Kirschenmann

Sustainable agriculture can be a tough sell. Farmers understand it, says Kirschenmann, but not all apply it.

Now a faculty member at Iowa State University in Ames, Kirschenmann is professor of philosophy and religion and a distinguished fellow at its Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. (The center is named for Aldo Leopold, 1887-1948, a Burlington, Iowa, native best known for A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays focusing on birds, animals, and plants near Leopold’s vacation home on the Wisconsin River north of Madison, Wisconsin.) As Metro Lutheran goes to press, Kirschenmann is a featured speaker at Luther Seminary.

Soil scattered

Kirschenmann was born in 1935, in the middle years of a sequence of drought and wind that blew millions of tons of soil as far as the East Coast. Great Plains farmers had plowed up prairie to plant wheat in Kansas and other states. The soil scattered, parched and unprotected by the prairie sod that had sheltered it for thousands of years.
Children wore masks so they could breathe on the way to school. Women put up blankets over windows in a vain effort to keep out the fine powder. A photo from the era shows farm machinery nearly drifted under by the powder. Equipment was ruined, fields were gone.
North Dakota was affected, though not as severely as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Nevertheless, Kirschenmann’s farmer father was well aware of the disaster to the south. And he knew the culprit wasn’t just drought; it was farming practices.
“My father somehow understood that the Dust Bowl was not just about the weather but also about the way farmers farmed,” Kirschenmann says. “And he was determined that that not happen to his land again. … Taking care of the land became a central ethical issue for him, a value that he passed on to me.”
In 1976, the younger Kirschenmann converted his 2,600-acre farm to a certified organic operation, productively farming without fertilizers and pesticides. He converted the farm to organic to restore the health of the soil. More than the absence of artificial chemicals, “it was more about compost and diverse crop rotations,” he explains.
His farm gained considerable attention, including coverage in National Geographic, Business Week, Audubon, the Los Angeles Times, and Gourmet magazine.

‘People who need to be fed’

Why does sustainable agriculture matter for congregations? One reason, says Alan Padgett, professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, is that seminaries send pastors to rural parishes, where many members are farmers.
But what does sustainable ag have to do with urban congregations — busy with budgeting, worship times, maintaining a building, and hotly debating how to do Vacation Bible School this year?
“If you think of church as only a building we go to on Sunday, maybe not much,” says Padgett. “But if we’re living out in the world and following Christ, it has has lots to do with being Christian. There are people who need to be fed and an environment that needs to be cared for, that we have damaged far too much.”
Sustainable agriculture can be a tough sell. Farmers understand it, says Kirschenmann, but not all apply it. Why? “We’re under enormous pressure for short-term economic return,” he says. Powerful chain stores set the prices they pay to processors. That directly affects what processors will pay to farmers.
“If you don’t do business that way,” Kirschenmann adds, some people warn “you won’t be successful.”
Is a global struggle for food and other resources imminent? Some think so. That might mean boxing out the already poor and letting them starve.
Framed that way, says Kirschenmann, with regard to sustainable agriculture, “I think the faith community has a critical role.”

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