The number of speakers, consultants and authors in the world of sustainable farming and gardening has exploded. There’s restorative agriculture, permaculture and Farming God’s Way, to name just a few. And then there’s Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms teaching us to enjoy the “pigness of the pig.” With so much information out there coming from all over, where is a Christian farmer to go for insight?
Answering this question is largely the goal of Noah Sanders in his book, Born-Again Dirt. According to Sanders the book is to help point out that the Gospel should not only transform our lives, but it “should also transform our agriculture.” This may seem like common sense to some Christians. To others, it will be an awakening.
In Born-Again Dirt, Sanders wrote, “if we want to glorify God we must be Christian farmers, not just farmers who are Christians. The way we work the dirt must spring from a biblical worldview.” He shared that this is the concept behind both the book’s title and the concept of born-again dirt.
In everyday language, this young farmer from Alabama developed his thoughts logically and liberally includes supporting scripture that helps the reader understand how to apply a biblical worldview to farming, whether someone has a window planter box or farms thousands of acres.
Sanders’ passion clearly comes through in his description of striving to glorify God in every aspect of his operation at his own farm. Those who practice industrial agriculture should not take his easy tone and avoidance of judgment as a sign of supporting those practices. Sanders is certainly teaching practices and techniques, in fact, a whole mindset, different than those of conventional agriculture. He takes this position in opposition against conventional farming practices because, as he wrote, they don’t hold up under the scrutiny of God’s word in the Bible.
Sanders wrote that he came to this point after examining his farming operation by holding “every aspect of my agriculture up to the Word of God.” His point is that Christian farmers, indeed all farmers, have a guidebook full of principles that can readily be applied to agriculture, regardless of scale.
It seems the foundational principle Sanders laid out after his introductory chapter is the most important. That notion is that no farmer owns their farm, but are only given stewardship over it by God. This is central to farming that brings glory to God, according to Sanders.
Sanders did dance delicately when it comes to applying Old Testament law to agriculture in the Church Age. And it’s this area Sanders should be more explicit in connecting Christ’s fulfillment of Jewish law to simply applying “principles” found there. To be fair though, he does state that Christians are saved by grace and not bound to the laws in the same way as in the Old Testament. And it bears reminding that Sanders is not teaching about salvation overtly, but about God-glorifying agriculture.
That’s not to say that Sanders doesn’t address the gospel. At the end of Chapter 2, he wrote that with the knowledge of the curse on the Earth and how sin entered the world and that Christ is the only solution to that problem, “…what we can and should do as Christians is seek to apply the redemption of Christ to every areas of our lives, including agriculture.” He added to that thought, “Unlike other farmers, we have a hope in the fact that Christ is returning to restore all things and that this current world, groaning under the curse of sin, is only temporary.”
Sanders pointed out that man’s expertise in farming pales in comparison to the Creator who designed natural processes and the functions of plants, soil and the rest of the biosphere. He wrote, “We cannot begin to understand the living creatures and systems in creation well enough to be able to manipulate them as industrial agriculture does today. To treat a chicken as if it were a source of raw material such as metal or wood in a factory, denies the value of life that God has given that creature.”
“I believe that as Christian farmers we should look not primarily to the world’s farming experts, but to the farming Expert,” Sanders wrote. That seems to make perfect sense, but in case someone missed this teaching, Sanders hones the point more sharply. “If we want to learn from the Expert, what do we do? In order to develop God-glorifying production methods for farming we need to honor the principles we see in the design of creation. Our production is going to be most successful when we manage creation in a way consistent with its design.” He added, “If we want to have production models that glorify God, then these models need to honor the principles in creation that reflect His wisdom and character.”
From this foundation, Sanders outlined very specific ideas about how to actually apply biblical principles in agriculture. He even got somewhat specific about what a “born-again dirt” farm should look like by examining and applying biblical principles to the farm and its operation.
Sanders wrote convincingly on the role of the Christian farmer as faithful steward of the land. This involves cultivating a Christ-like heart as well as cultivating the land in a way that brings honor to God. Farmers are to be faithfully caring for the land so that it sustains the life that is all around it. The Christian farmer is an attentive farmer who is both diligent and hardworking, but who is also thoughtful in planning.
The logical flow of the writing moves to more carefully examining God’s principles of design which begins with a deeper understanding of soil and its health. He outlined the need to follow God’s design based on season, patterns, and even periods of rest. “The principle of resting helps cultivate in our hearts a trust in the Lord and confidence in His provision,” Sanders wrote. “Sometimes we may be tempted to think that there are times we need to work and can’t afford to rest. One of the reasons God wants us to rest is to be reminded that we are dependent on Him for provision, not on our own strength and ability to work.”
He was quick to point out that rest doesn’t mean neglect. “When God created and rested on the seventh day He ceased from all the work He had done, but He obviously didn’t cease from caring for and maintaining His creation. Without the care of God all of creation would fall apart. Through Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17) and have their being (Revelation 4:11). Therefore, in following His example, we need to rest from work, but not neglect the care of what we are responsible for.”
He further defined rest for farmers and the land. Sanders wrote that letting the land rest means not taking away from it or causing a negative sum. Caring for a fallow field by planting a “green manure crop for the benefit of the soil during the fallow year could … be an application of caring for your soil while letting it rest.” The field gains something positive not a subtraction of something from it.
Sanders built a strong case against the kind of agriculture that produces food that isn’t the healthiest available to humans or that harms creation. He boldly writes that it is not honoring to God to produce food or food ingredients that aren’t healthful.
If we as farmers want to promote health and the general well-being of the people we serve with the things we produce as farmers, it’s very important that we seek to grow food that’s not only safe, but also full of nutrition! It takes more effort to improve our soils and use more traditional seed varieties, but what would we want someone to do for us? More importantly, what does God want us to do for others? We need to reflect God’s love and care in the very nature of the food we grow.
This leads us to the controversial practices of genetic modification. He wrote, “At first glance genetic engineering sounds useful. But our question as Christian farmers is not “Do GMOs work?” but “Do they honor God?”
It’s a compelling question we must all take to heart. Sanders offered his own answer. “In my opinion, the unnatural manipulation of genes violates the natural order of God’s creation.”
Not leaving the Christian farmer with only theoretical and theological discussions, Sanders gave practical explanations of born-again farming, such as how to get started and the role of marketing, all while supporting his position with scripture strewn throughout his text for biblical support of what he asserts.
Farming is not about financial gain or high crop yields, Sanders taught. Rather, farming is another means for man to worship God in trust and gratitude.
In Born-Again Dirt, Noah Sanders makes a convincing and compelling argument that a God-glorifying agriculture is one that is born out of a stewardship mentality, a creation-mimicking approach and a Bible-based set of principles. To that we simply respond, Amen!
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