We’re excited to welcome Ragan Sutterfield as a regular contributer to the blogging community here on SustainableTraditions.com! Ragan is a writer, speaker, cultural critic and farmer in his native Arkansas. He also is one of the founders and operators of a farm at Felder Academy, a public charter school for troubled youth. Ragan’s recent book, a short collection of essays entitled ‘Farming as a Spiritual Discipline’ beckons the church at large to give ear to the wisdom of the agrarian mind. We asked him a few questions about his new book, the rising Christian interest in agrarian thinkers and the church’s role in creation care and sustainable agriculture.
ST: Hi Ragan. Give us a little background. How long have you been farming and writing? What is a typical day like for you?
RAGAN: I’ve been writing seriously since high school, but my writing didn’t really begin to take shape until 2004 when I published my first article. Around the same time I began an apprenticeship in farming with a sheep farmer near where I grew up in Arkansas. Over time that apprenticeship grew into a full blown livestock operation including sheep, pigs, chickens, and cattle that I ran by myself. That venture was a humiliating experience–it brought me to the limits of my abilities and truthfully I got in over my head because my ambitions overreached my competence. I learned through my failure that farming must be done with an extreme respect for limits and surprises, and even more so that farming must be done in community. Over time I sold off most of my livestock and found my way to a partnership with a couple of other farmers and social entrepreneurs in a project to establish a school farm at Felder Academy. Our goal there is to create a sustainable school farm model that is self supporting and could easily be repeated at any school. All three of us help manage the farm and we coordinate our activities with a weekly meeting on Tuesdays. We are all responsible for making sure the chickens get fed, plants get watered, and progress is made in the garden. Though we all chip in time when we can, I am responsible to see that everything is taken care of on the weekends. During the week I also try to work on high level work like the development of a planting calendar, coordinating the pick up brewers grain from a local microbrewery for compost, etc. I support my farming and writing through an off farm job working for a consulting firm, so much of my time is taken up with that. It is not ideal, but this arrangement has allowed me to have more freedom in my farming and writing and less financial pressure.
My typical day really varies widely, but I generally try to accomplish my most important work in the morning. After morning prayer, I try to write at least an hour each morning before I dive into everything else, after that it is mostly a wide open mix of whatever needs doing. I do try to take breaks throughout the day to recenter. That can be difficult sometimes, but it is important I think to recollect myself and understand that in everything my true vocation is to be a servant of Christ whatever it is I’m doing.
ST: How did your new book come about? Is this a book for farmers, non-farmers or both? What is it’s main message to the church and the world?
RAGAN: Farming as a Spiritual Discipline was born from a series of talks I gave at the “God Speed the Plough” conference put on by Englewood Christian Church and the Englewood Review of Books. Chris Smith asked me if I would turn those talks, which were more conversational, into essays that Doulos Christou Press would then publish. The subject matter of the essays were born out of my struggles to be both a disciple and a farmer, but they are more deeply centered on the question of what it means for us to be creatures. I think that understanding our role as creatures is essential for us to find our way in the world as disciples and I think that the act of engaging directly with the soil is a good way to gain that understanding. The book is really meant for a general audience–non-farmers and farmers alike because we are all, whether conscious of it or not, involved in the sort of engagement with creation that I describe. The book’s main message is that we are creatures, limited and dependent, living in a world that God created out of the trinitarian community of love. That world, that creation is a place of abundance but our sin has limited that abundance. It is our role as Christians to live as limited and dependent creatures so that the creation might flourish and all can enjoy the abundance that God has created.
ST: Why are an increasing amount of Christians listening to agrarian voices like Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, Joel Salatin and others?
RAGAN: I think the interest is driven in large part because of the vacuum in good thinking about our role in creation. Too often the only theology available for evangelical Christians was a dominion centered “stewardship” model where we take care of God’s property while he’s gone. Creation itself was seen as something created on a whim by a capricious God; not a “making room” in the loving community of the Trinity as Gregory of Nyssa articulated it.
What writers like Berry and Logsdon offer us is a different way of understanding our role in creation that I think is both more biblical and theologically orthodox. Berry’s agrarianism, as I see it, relies on the idea of membership within a community of creation. For Berry we are creatures among other creatures. I think that Christians are drawn to the agrarian vision because it gets closer to the truth than the alternatives that we’ve been offered.
ST: There is much talk and activity concerning creation care these days but I’ve noticed some initiatives seem to be devoid of any agricultural context. What role can cultivators, sustainable farmers and gardeners, play in the creation care movement?
RAGAN: I am afraid that “creation care” might put us too much into the model of caretakers or stewards of creation rather than members of creation. To the extent that we are caretakers that role is secondary to our role as members and I think it is important for us to be conscious of that as we think about these issues–our care is the care of neighbors.
That said, I don’t think that we care for our neighbors if we are centered on exploiting their resources. What good farming does is understand that what is good for the land is good for the farmer, what is good for the ecosystem is good for the garden. It is being neighborly at its best and that is what farmers and gardeners can help to teach us–how to be neighborly in the community of creation. In being neighborly we are able to get what we need from the community without destroying its other members. Doing this is hard work and it is unfinished work. There are many times when the idea of neighborliness is challenged in farming and we must struggle with the response–do we start a chemical war with pests and kill beneficial ladybugs and spiders at the same time or do we allow some holes in our lettuce to maintain balance? The answers are not easy, but through the experience of careful and neighborly farmers we can begin to piece out a better form of membership.
ST: I’m hearing more and more about Christians getting involved in sustainabe agriculture, permaculture, organic gardening and homesteading. Is a new church-based back-to-the-land movement emerging? If so, could it reshape how Christians engage the world through mission, discipleship and community?
RAGAN: I am hopeful about all of the interest developing around agrarian ways of thinking and living in the church, but I’m also cautious. The worst thing that could happen is for people to think that in order to embrace these ideas they need to move out of the city and buy a little land in the country. Some may be called to do that, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a community to do it with and lots of experience to build on.
Instead I hope that more Christians begin to do the work of living as full members in the creation where they are. There is a lot of land that needs to be reclaimed from enslavement to the Powers and Christians can begin that work here and now, wherever they are. It could be empty urban lots or manicured suburban lawns–wherever “here” is. We need to do this work as churches and in working together we will grow as communities and disciples. I think common work is one of the most important things we can do together–it forms us as a truly cooperative body and forces us to really face the nitty gritty of bringing the kingdom to bear.
It would be wonderful if churches would begin to farm together and provide the food from that farm to those in need as Cedar Ridge Community Church is doing in Maryland. Such a farm can be a place to learn to be community as well as a place to learn what it really means to be a member of creation.
ST: Where can folks pick up your new book?
RAGAN: The best would be to order the book from Doulos Christou Press through the Englewood Review of Books.
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