On November 30 - December 1, I attended the Food for Thought Conference at Gwinnett Technical College, presented by Georgia Farmers Market Association, to interview 15 farmers for a podcast series.
Some were veterans who found that organic farming healed their post traumatic stress disorder. Some were descendants of slavery, wary of the land and the pain it has brought their family. Some were environmentalists who feared for our future. Some grow in a food desert, where there isn’t any access to fresh produce.
The lessons I learned from them were profound beyond my highly active imagination.
Small, family farmers are an unlikely bunch in a country that prioritizes industrial agribusinesses. In fact, the suicide rate for farmers is double that of military veterans. But small farmers fill major holes in our society. They do the work that nobody wants to do, from labor in the field to caring for those who need it most. They create educational opportunities, they feed people who are hungry, and they represent our best chance of mitigating the growing healthcare and climate crises.
Time and time again, these farmers spoke about community, about education, about forging relationships with senior citizens, neighbors, students and government officials. They spoke about helping people, about feeding those in need and taking care of the land that provides for us.
But my interview with Asa Ben Ysrael stayed with me, above all others. Ysrael is a black, Hebrew farmer from New York City who was convicted of a felony at 18 years old and never attended college. Still, he hustled hard enough to make more than he could ever imagine, reflecting that he once owned a house with a central vacuum system and a $90,000 car.
He since moved his family to Georgia, poured the money into his farm, Local Lands, and started numerous businesses around food under the banner of Geechie Farmers, a nod to the descendants of slaves who refused to surrender their West African culture and led rebellions along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. He’s got a $3,000 truck and struggles with the fact that so many farmers markets take place on the Sabbath. He is booming, jovial and extremely insightful.
Ysrael spoke about the connection between faith and farming.
“The instructions in the Bible were put there so we could deal with reality, not illusion,” said Ysrael. “What’s happened somehow with religion, is that they lost their relation between the instructions from our Father and reality. Everything became metaphorical.”
“The Bible shows us how to live, what to eat, how to treat each other, how to deal with the land and how to deal with him,” Ysrael explained. “Most of the Bible encapsulates how to be a farmer. But now we have master leaders in religion who have never planted a seed. Today, there’s a disconnect between the production of what is real and what is manufactured.”
In essence, Ysrael believes the Bible is made up of instructions from our Father to take care of our Mother -- Earth, that is. When the instructions are followed, and the balance is adhered to, our Mother will provide everything we need to survive.
Needless to say, we are way out of balance. A meager 2 percent of Americans farm – far fewer farm using organic practices. Our hunger problem is only equaled by an obesity epidemic. Wealth inequality is soaring. Women encounter sexual harassment on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Our political discourse has shattered, completely. Our faith in each other has disappeared.
President Trump’s recent decision to turn over a record size of public land to private developers to chop down trees and drill for oil flies directly in the face of environmental responsibility. Though the Bible is light on oil, it is heavy on the importance of trees.
“For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax.... But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; a wooden idol is a worthless doctrine.” Jeremiah 10:3
Let’s put politics aside for a minute and deal with reality, as Ysrael advises. What do we really need to survive? What is really important to us? What kind of world do we want to create for our children, and their children, and so on?
Do we value the things that money cannot buy, like love, empathy, compassion, or conservation, or should we let them fall by the wayside?
I haven’t stepped foot in a church for over a decade aside from a handful of weddings, but I feel more connected to what is really important at small, family farms or urban gardens than anywhere else.
There’s no cable TV. No politicians arguing. No false prophets. Just clean food, clean water and good people. Everything we need.
I believe it’s time we create our own Eden by taking care of those who care for us, before it’s too late.
“I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return.” Philippians 1:9