Last weekend our safe chemicals’ team, Jessie Dye and I, took a trip to Eastern Washington. We were on our way to Pullman, along with the Washington Toxics Coalition and Washington State Nurses Association, to talk with communities there about legislation to remove toxic chemicals from furniture and children’s toys. The staff here at Earth Ministry/Washington Interfaith Power & Light has loved visiting Eastern Washington in the past, and is committed to connecting with more communities on the dry side of our beautiful state.
We had the good fortune to visit the Oregon Trail town of Ritzville to meet Rev. Judith Rinehart-Nelson of Zion Philadelphia Congregational UCC. After lunch with Rev. Rinehart-Nelson and one of her gracious congregants, Ron Jirava, Ron gave us a fascinating tour of his wheat farm. It might be God ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz, who brings forth bread from the Earth, but Ron seems to do a lot of the work, too.
Driving us through his fields and showing us his equipment, Ron told us about the history of his family that has tilled and passed this land on through the generations. The history of this farm, and the original Congregation Church in the Northwest on his land, goes back to his family’s arrival here six generations ago. People who spend the days working the land with their own hands often remember things other people can forget.
We were moved by his words that echoed Leviticus (25:23): “For the land is mine; for you are sojourners, residents with me.” How could I own this land--Ron wanted to know--it has been here for so many generations before me, it will be here for long after. If we damage it, how are we caring for the people who cared for it before passing it on, or the people who will tend it after us, or the God who made it and lends it to us for a while?
People who work the land remember just how dependent we are on the generosity, and how vulnerable we are to the whims, of the natural world. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, farming is at the center of religious life. The Bible is filled with prayer for rain for the growing plants and prayers for a safe and abundant harvest that will provide enough food for all. These are the same prayers that today Rev. Rinehart-Nelson says fill her spiritual life and the life of her congregation.
Small scale farming is not a get rich quick, or ever, scheme. Farmers exist in a production-based economy that demands the highest yields, the amount of crop you can harvest from each acre, every year. They feed a large and growing population all over the world that needs healthy food to eat. In an age when we will pay $200 for an iPhone but $1 is too expensive for an apple, farmers struggle to get by from year to year. Ron explained that they have very little safety net for the inevitable ups and downs of a livelihood that depends on the good graces of the natural world.
Each season, farmers have to carefully balance how much pesticide and herbicide they need to use to obtain yields high enough to support themselves without poisoning the land they live and work on. They need to decide how much to till – increasing labor, greenhouse gas emissions, erosion, water usage, fuel use, and crop-harming pests, but also increasing the all-important yield that is required to financially stay afloat from year-to-year. In God’s first, most fundamental command to humans, agriculture and environmentalism are intertwined. Humans are to tend – protect and care for – and till – to work and live from – the land. In our economy, environmentalism clashes with finances
What we spend money on reflects what is sacred to us. In the 1960’s, Americans spent about a third of their income on food. In 2009, Americans spent an average of 6% of their income on food, compared with 14% in France, 20% in Poland, and 44% in Belarus – all countries with lower incidences of malnutrition than America. When we devalue our food, we do not value the land that produces our food, and we damage and degrade it. We ignore the sacredness of the process through which the world is fed.
We are grateful to Rev. Judith and Ron for the beautiful day they shared with us on the wheat farm near Ritzville. For our part, we commit to learning from and connecting with our farming neighbors. We hope to bring more people of faith to tour and see this farming community next summer. Right now you can check out the amazing Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at WSU, where you can read all about the interconnectedness of agriculture and the environment.