Christian Food Movement: I farm 600 acres with the help of N.T. Wright and the Rodale Institute. And I know we need a Christian food movement.

March 28, 2017 Josh Payne

Let’s talk farming and faith. I drive John Deere tractors. I grow 200 bushel per acre corn. I use GPS and advanced biological and chemical technologies to feed the world. I am a Christian farmer.

Be honest. How many of you heard this as the subtext: I grow GMO corn and soybeans. I use Roundup and other chemicals to control weeds. I use chemical based fertilizers to feed my plants. I am a Christian farmer.

Okay. Let’s start over. I have an edible food forest in my backyard. I compost or recycle everything I can. I repurposed chemical totes to collect rainwater. I use on-contour swales. I am a Christian farmer.

Now, how many of you heard this: I am a liberal hippie farmer who drives a Prius. I will never grow enough food to feed the world this way. I am not a real farmer. I am a Christian farmer.

Unfortunately, I have witnessed the previous caricatures of opinions while talking with farmers within 100 miles of each other. Large, rural farmers who claim the name of Christ legitimately don’t understand small, urban farmers who also claim the name of Christ, and vice versa. They don’t understand the way the other markets their goods. They don’t understand the other methods used to grow food. They don’t understand the compatibility of these practices with faith.

Now, given the political climate of our nation, the topic is more urgent than ever. In some ways, the political culture of the previous election came down to the urban / rural dichotomy as much as the liberal / conservative split.

The divide in the food movement is real and will continue to expand as long as the stakeholders in the conversation are kept separate. I would propose that here, in the network of the Christian Food Movement, is a place to bring both large and small farmers to the proverbial table to dialogue about issues too often discussed only in the safety of like-minded practitioners.

Why here? We are united by a bond stronger than allegiance to food practices – as the old hymn goes, Jesus is “the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.” Blessed are we when we are the peacemakers, and peace often starts with understanding.

So, in the spirit of peace, I, a large farmer, hope to start the process of cross-cultural understanding – because the stakes are high. Hopefully, we will realize we are co-laborers in the Christian Food Movement, even if our practices are very different.

So, who am I, anyway? I am a farmer in the middle of Missouri. I farm with my 88 year old grandfather who has been a very conventional farmer for 88 years, and am in the process of converting a 600 acre conventional farm into a regenerative farm. I am also pursuing a M.Div. from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and would definitely call the changes on my farm theologically driven (conversation partners include N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggeman, Richard Rohr, St. Francis of Assisi, and many others).


Notice I didn’t say organic (gasp). As a farmer, I am moving towards a regenerative row-crop farm (and some large-scale permaculture, but those trees won’t be planted until fall, if you want to come help me plant hundreds of nut trees).

In some ways, you could call me a sunlight farmer. It is my goal to have plants growing year round on my farm to both produce as much photosynthesis as possible and feed the microbial community. Currently, we use cover crops to both fertilize and prevent weeds on all of our acres, and are trying to mechanically kill (roll and crimp via plans from the Rodale Institute) those cover crops to reduce chemicals. Corn goes to rye, which is then not harvested but laid flat on the ground and planted into soybeans. Soybeans are followed immediately by wheat. Wheat is followed by a biological primer, a 14 variety cover crop that infuses a flush of life into a sterile seedbed, a flush of nitrogen used by the corn the following year, and a lush opportunity for grazing.

On my long dead soils, hope springs anew, but this hope is bigger than just this farm. The promise of regenerative farming is actually hope for the world. The Rodale Institute recently claimed that if every single acre of the United States had a living root for as long as possible, the resulting photosynthesis would take out 70% of world greenhouse gases emitted in the atmosphere, and if all cattle were grazed responsibly (leaving at least 4 inches of growth on the pasture), 110% of the greenhouse gases would be sunk into the soil. They estimate that if each acre would gain .2% organic matter per year, global warming would be reversed. Truly good news indeed.

Unfortunately, the conversation around food production rarely revolves around soil, sunlight, and carbon. Instead, it has become another deeply dualistic issue. In many (though not all) circles, organic farmers make the conversation about healthy food (interesting thoughts on that some other time, by the way) and demonize those who don’t use organic practices, often using Facebook sourced science to prove health risks posed by Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and petroleum based chemicals. Corporate farmers demonize those who try to take away their livelihoods by issuing propaganda about maintaining a way of life and profit using monetary based economics. Both sides tend to attack remotely, choosing to make arguments in like-minded circles of friends or in a unidirectional medium without personally knowing members of the opposing sides.

In other words, both sides have essentially become mono-cropped systems. Other species are seen as competitors that must be eradicated.

What the world needs is a polyculture. A land like my cover crop, with shallow roots that hold soil in place, deep roots that reach untouchable minerals, strong roots that break up soil, extensive roots that provide fodder for trillions of living micro-organisms, all connected by vast networks of mycorrhizal fungi which shuttle nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium from plant to plant depending upon which needs it the most. A land which allows living water to infiltrate and replenish underground springs, attracts beneficial insects to patrol the area, and provides shelter for the birds of the air.

So, fellow voices in the Christian Food Movement, what are your stories that I as a large farmer can’t imagine? What are your practices that could help me be more productive? What are your theological underpinnings that drive your farming practices? The world needs this type of witness.

Agriculture needs a voice in the wilderness crying out “prepare the way of the Lord” by finding common concerns and eliminating polemic. I think we are the people to begin the conversation.