What's Going On? Starting a Conversation with Rural America
by Janet Hunt (September / October 1999 — Volume 15, Number 5)
Agriculture in America is changing. Some farm families are suffering. It's time for us to listen to our neighbors who produce our food
Early last November, I placed a phone call to the chair of a call committee in my area. The answering machine picked up and her voice could be heard urging the caller to eat pork for Thanksgiving — and if that didn't fit the menu, to think about taking a pig home as a pet!
I laughed out loud and then I cringed because behind her words there was pain. When I reached her later, I commented on her message and asked her to tell me what was going on in her area.
Without hesitation, she talked about rising costs and plummeting prices for their hogs; about their family budget which would be tighter this year than it had been in a decade; about neighbors who would struggle this season to keep the farm; about the way the whole community has changed as fewer people farm and neighbors are in greater competition than ever; and about how there are no safe places to share the pain, fear, and sense of shame — not even with those who gather together to worship on Sunday mornings.
I'm a town kid. To be sure, during my whole life in northern Illinois, I've known farmers. During high school I earned my spending money "walking beans" and detassling corn. (For the uninitiated, that is walking the fields and cutting back weeds and corn stalks which have found a way to grow amidst the beans.) My job on pea and corn pack at the local canning plant helped put me through college.
But I was always a step removed from the rural culture and, honestly, I haven't paid all that much attention to what was going on in agriculture.
The congregations I've served, although classified as rural and small town, have claimed only a handful of farmers. So other than presiding at a service of the blessing of seeds and soil in the spring, I haven't been too attentive to the particular unique needs of those few farmers who have worshipped in the churches where I've been pastor.
Then I received a call to this new position in the synod office. My portfolio includes working with rural/small town congregations. And the people I'm working with are deeply affected by the changing world of agriculture. Some of them are suffering. And I'm learning that many of them are not seeing their local congregation as having a meaningful role to play in their lives as they face what seems to be insurmountable challenges and life-altering changes in their lives.
I served as one of their pastors in local congregations for 10 years, and I realized that in all that time I had done nothing to learn about what was going on with the decreasing number of families of farmers who were part of the congregational family. I hadn't begun to ask what the role of the gospel was for people in those places.
It became clear that it was time to start asking, and so I did. I began by calling one pastor and asking her what was going on with farmers in her congregation. She didn't know, so she started to ask, and she kept the conversation going by posing the same question to other area pastors.
These pastors then began talking with farmers in their own congregations. And the conversation continued with this group of pastors, some of whom were new to rural ministry or who, like me, hadn't gotten around to asking before.
The conversation continued on until they invited members of their congregations who were interested in talking about the current state of farming to come out and educate those of us who don't know much about it.
How Farming Has Changed
And the people came. On a Tuesday night in February nearly 60 people — mostly farmers and community members — showed up to ask, speak, learn, share, and pray together. We heard about how farming has changed in their lifetimes:
- How farmers have become more specialized — producing more efficiently one or two crops or one kind of livestock — but becoming more and more vulnerable to a downturn in one particular section of the market.
- How fewer people exclusively farm today. Individuals sometimes work off the farm and do the chores, planting, and harvesting in the early mornings, late evenings, and on weekends. Spouses will take a job in town just to get health insurance.
- How their costs for producing food are escalating, while prices for selling food are plummeting, and how the low prices farmers are receiving for hogs or other commodities now are not quickly reflected in the freezer case or on the store shelves at your local supermarket.
- The near impossibility of starting up new as a young farmer — the sheer cost will bar them from entering.
- The complicated world of following the market and complying with government requirements, the wide-ranging global market that all must compete in today, and how what happens halfway around the world can impact whether or not you can afford shoes for your kids this fall.
- How neighbors no longer know each other; how things have changed in small communities; and where once others would show up to offer help when a family had an illness or an injury, now they'll show up at the owner's and ask if they can rent in your stead.
- How a farmer is less likely to go to the doctor with a minor injury or illness (what health insurance is affordable is not that extensive, so sometimes minor things become major without attention and treatment).
- The pride of carrying on the family vocation, and the pain of being the one to lose the land that had been passed on.
- How farming is no longer something they would wish for their children to do.
- How as there are fewer farm families, there are also fewer people to serve on school boards and church councils or as Sunday school teachers or Little League coaches or Girl Scout leaders.
- How churches are not always safe places to share their pain, fear, hurt, and sense of shame, and how they've experienced judgment and not understanding.
It was the beginning of a conversation: one that has found congregational leaders wondering where our food comes from and who produces it; one that has us asking whether having fewer and fewer farmers is a good thing; one that has people wondering about how the global market affects individuals in their congregations; and one that has us realizing that, at least in Northern Illinois, none of our people are all that far removed, personally or professionally, from what happens on the farm.
It's a beginning conversation that has us asking questions about justice and hope for all of us, and that leads us to a conversation about the role of the church. We are asking ourselves, "Should we only be here to comfort and encourage those who are hurting, or are the people of God to be about the work of changing the world so that God's justice and kindness and mercy are evident?"
Indeed, we asked that February night about what those gathered would want the church, and in particular their pastors, to know about their lives. We asked how they felt the church should respond to the situation they find themselves in.
Their answers were less wide-ranging than before, but we did learn some things.
The farmers expect their pastors to understand the unique demands of their work and lives — they often simply don't have the hours to devote to volunteer work that they once did. They wanted them to know that they are working even in winter when there aren't crops to be planted or cultivated or harvested.
These farmers hoped that their pastors will take the time to understand their world-to show up at their homes and walk through part of a day with them, and to not judge or oversimplify what we may know little about.
But the farmers mostly expressed their expectation that their churches remain places of worship where the gospel is preached and lived. They spoke about their congregations being places of acceptance and places which will challenge them to grow in their faith. They hoped their pastors and people would be vigilant about caring for one another — especially that member or family whose regular pattern of worship attendance has suddenly changed.
The world we live in has changed. Where at one time many of our ancestors were at most a generation removed from the farm, now there are people who have no idea where their food actually comes from.
Furthermore, we take it for granted that we can get strawberries in January and apples in April — importing these foods from thousands of miles away. We expect that our costs for food will continue to remain low. All the while many of us have failed to ask what this means for our people, our environment, and ourselves.
It is undoubtedly true that we can't go back to a time when most people were living closer to the land and caring for it as the gift from God that it is (when we knew whose cows produced our milk or whose labor made the sweet corn possible).
However, we must continue to be about the work that God has given us. We are those who are called to care for the people under our care. We are those who are called to take care of the good gifts that God has entrusted to us, including the land, the water, and the air.
We are those who are called to bring the good news of God's love and compassion to the people. And we are those who are called to remind God's people that God is not only a God of love and forgiveness; God is also a God of justice. We are indeed to be about the work of caring for all that God has given us.
Although we begin by making our churches safe places where those in pain can be supported, this must also mean calling us to be witnesses in the world to God's loving and challenging intent for us all: to care for all people and to care for the land which nurtures and supports us.
What We Know
I'm still in the conversation figuring out just what that means. At this point there are a few things we know for sure about farming:
— We know that we have people in pain. At the very least, some are having to adjust or abandon their understanding of their farming vocations; others, at the most, are in profound physical need.
— We know that the world of farming has changed. High costs and low returns have resulted in fewer and fewer of our neighbors farming. We might legitimately ask what that means for us, and in particular for the quality and quantity of our food supply. Finally, we must ask what that means for the use and care of the land.
— We know that these factors have placed additional stress on pastors and congregations who are serving in areas most affected. Whether we are among those who farm, or find ourselves a step or two removed, or whether we are those who serve or worship in a congregation of farmers, or only one or two farm families, these are questions and challenges that belong to us all.
That can only begin by asking a farmer what's going on in his or her world or by picking up the phone and calling a friend serving in a rural setting. That can only begin as we start to ask about the sources of our food and the people who are providing it for us. That can only begin as we acknowledge our responsibility to care for the whole body of Christ and as we begin to exert our responsibility to care for all that God has given us.
This is a good and important conversation. I have a world to learn, but I'm grateful that a painful answering machine message brought me into the conversation last November. Today I have a clearer sense of where God is calling us all. It starts by asking and listening. Maybe you're being invited to enter into the conversation as well?
Janet Hunt is an assistant to the bishop of the Northern Illinois Synod. One of her current assignments is small town and rural ministry. She has held pastorates in small town and rural areas in the synod.
Jung, L. Shannon, and Mary A. Agria. Rural Congregational Studies: A Guide for Good Shepherds (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997).
Jung, L. Shannon, et. al. Rural Ministry: The Shape of the Renewal to Come. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998).