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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Lilies as analogues for farming

Fred Bahnson on the wisdom of attending to patterns of Creation

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Lilies as analogues for farming

“Our fields speak a language, which, as the psalmist tells us, is a language of praise (see Ps 19:1–4). Instead of the language of industrialization, which is the language of efficiency and control, we should learn to speak the language of praise. And that means a move toward agricultural practices that exhibit what Liberty Hyde Bailey, in his 1915 book The Holy Earth called earth righteousness.

“I said earlier that Jesus didn't have any explicitly agrarian advice, but perhaps there’s one exception. Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry, then added something that provides an imaginative leaping point for much of what I wish to say below. ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,’ he said, ‘they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these’ (Mt 6:28–29). Jesus used this example about clothing, and why his disciples shouldn’t worry about what they wear, but I take his words here also to be a kind of agrarian directive: consider the lilies, how they grow. Look at the created order God has established. You will never do better than this. So trust in this order and imitate it. Neither Solomon in all his glory  — nor, we might add, Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill and their fertilizers or pesticides or genetically modified seeds — can out-create what God has created.

“For ten thousand years we have tried to outdo creation in our attempt to grow food, trusting in our own ingenuity. We have mostly failed. Modern agriculture is a zero-sum game in which we steadily, as Wes Jackson says, ‘contribute to the drawdown of the capital stock of the planet.’ Yet it need not be. Indeed, as Jackson and other practitioners of the consider-the-lilies approach an approach I will call regenerative agriculture tell us, we can use nature as analog rather than antagonist. Consider the lilies of the field turns out to be sound agriculture advice.

“Around the world there is a growing movement among agriculturalists to look to nature as a model for how to practice agriculture. Wes Jackson and his fellow plant breeders at The Land Institute, which Norman will describe later in the book, are some of the biggest proponents of this practice — what poet Alexander Pope called ‘consulting the genius of the place.’ But there are others. Instead of imposing our own agricultural scheme, most often monocultures of annual crops, we should look at how lilies grow. They don’t grow in monocultures, but in polycultures; that is, they grow mixed with other plants. Some of those plants fix nitrogen, fertilizing their neighbors. Lilies don’t need someone to plant them every year; they are perennial. Our monocultures of annual crops exact a heavy toll on the land; if we’re to practice agriculture in a way that conserves life rather than degrades it, we will need to depend much more on perennial polycultures for our food supply.

“Yet we still must eat annual crops, and forms of agriculture such as biointensive mini-farming use God’s creation as a model for such crops. Using conventional agricultural practices, it takes just over an acre of land to feed one person in the United States for a year, and far more energy and topsoil are wasted than are produced in food calories. Using bio-intensive methods, you can feed ten people for a whole year on that one acre, and you can build soil fertility while doing it. That same acre, by the way, would feed one cow for a whole year, or it would fill up the gas tank of your car with ethanol exactly twice.

“The list of other types of regenerative agriculture is long: permaculture, biodynamic agriculture, agroforestry, Farming God’s Way, Fukuoka no-till farming, and rotational grazing livestock systems, among others. In the sustainable agriculture world, some of these names can become mirages of their own, a territory to be policed and defended by practitioners as the answer. But we need not get too hung up on names or programs, and no one system need dominate; food growers in the abundant kingdom can learn from all of these bodies of knowledge. The underlying idea to remember is that the ecosystems in which we find ourselves — created by God and deemed ‘very good’ — are far more adept at growing things than we are. Making ourselves students of those ecosystems is what it means to serve and preserve the fertile soil God entrusted to our care (see Gen 2:15). Our role is not to outdo creation or copy it verbatim, but to use it as an analog, a controlling metaphor, for how we tend our own fields.”

— from Fred Bahnson, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (InterVarsity Press, 2012)

Fred Bahnson was a guest on Volume 116 of the Journal.