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Farming the Fruits of the Spirit

By Johnathan McRay

My mother’s father grew up in a farming family. Not one that farmed for much money, but one that raised hogs and grew gardens on rented land. After my grandfather was grown, his parents bought a 100-acre farm and built their house with their hands. Just before I was born, my great-grandfather was crushed by his tractor on a steep hillside.

Years later my great-grandmother sold the farm to divide the inheritance money between her two children. I don’t think my granddad ever fully recovered from losing his dream of farming that land. A decade ago he and my grandmother bought thirty mostly wooded acres, where he grew a large garden in the late evenings after work and on the weekends. This spring, after years of dreams and long commutes, my grandparents finally moved out to their farm.

My grandfather doesn’t speak much, instead humming and rubbing his hands together, but when asked why he plants a garden every year despite limited time and old age, he replied, “I try to stop, but every spring the soil sings to me.”

I have several bookshelves devoted to an agricultural library of various philosophies in various disciplines – agroecology, regenerative agriculture, organic farming, permaculture – and none of them say why they do what they do with half of my grandfather’s eloquence. These books describe necessary methods for water harvesting and soil building, for intercropping and cover cropping, for crop rotation and rotational grazing in fields and forests, for worst-first selective thinning and plant propagation, for pruning and grafting.

A person carries a lantern through a wheat field at sunset
“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Many of these books begin by reciting the lamentations of industrial agriculture and the modern food system. I’m glad for the repetition, because these realities must be known. But, as far as I can read, few of these authors introduce their practical guides with an emotional invitation to see what they love about their homes, the places and relationships that have called them to cultivation and care.

I want to see an agricultural handbook that opens with a love song to its place, with chants for cation exchange capacity, canticles of cambium, melodies of mycelium, and wonder for the water cycle. A language of sustainable agriculture must be informed by emotion, a feeling in the body as much as, if not more than, philosophical or scientific thoughts. I want a vision of agriculture that, like my grandfather, quietly trusts that the soil does indeed sing in the spring.

I want this because the most innovative techniques of “carbon farming” or “regenerative agriculture” won’t save us if we’re not cultivating reverence for the world. They won’t save us because they won’t last without this reverent affection that supports them beyond burnout. I didn’t grow up farming, so I’ve needed the handbooks and the workshops that show us practices for how to sustain our soil, but how about practices for sustaining these practices?

What keeps us going when we’re exhausted, short on cash and time, encouraged to make a killing when it’s hard to make a living and a supposedly easier option presents itself? I’m grateful for how-tos on building soil fertility, designing water systems and articulating crop production goals, but what about steps for cultivating affection? How do farmers sustain our spirits?

With that last question, I suppose I’m trying to say that a sustainable agriculture can only be sustained by practices that might best be called spiritual. Now, when I use that word, I’m not talking about otherworldly or unworldly beliefs. I’m describing a way of experiencing this world: the soils we build, the water we irrigate, the plants we harvest, and the animals we raise as gifts of life. Our work is responding to the call to care for a gift. By spirit, I mean what animates us, inspires us, keeps us going, like a deep breath or a cool wind. I care about this spirit as a grower who plants trees and sows seeds. More fundamentally, I care because I am a creature that eats, breathes, drinks, washes, builds, and relates. And I would really like to continue to do these things.

Pierre Rabhi, a French Algerian farmer, wrote a short book with a title that expresses my sentiment exactly: As in the Heart, So in the Earth: Reversing the Desertification of the Soul and the Soil. Rabhi tells a story about how industrial development eroded the culture and ecology of a fictional North African village, and the people’s attempts to revive their traditions with help from modern agroecology. This book, Rabhi writes, comes from experiences both practical and vital (p. 4). He insists that we can’t only learn the visible material ways in which the earth sustains us; we’re far too “hypnotized by a science that itself is becoming more and more enslaved to the profit motive” (p. 3). It seems, he continues, that only the dimension of the sacred can provide a measure of the awesomeness of our responsibility. By sacred I mean a sense of humility in which gratitude, knowledge, wonder, respect, and mystery all come together to inspire and enlighten our actions, transforming us into beings who are truly present in the world and free of the vanity and arrogance that reveal far more our fears and weaknesses than our true strength. (p. 3)

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

Galatians 5:22-23

We know by reason, but we also know by our senses, our imagination, our intuition, our memory, and our emotions. We know by wonder and gratitude and respect. Baba Dioum, a forestry engineer from Senegal, simplified all this when he said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

In light of this, I went foraging through the thickets and groves of Christianity, my inherited religious tradition, to see what might be growing there. Could my heritage teach me this conserving understanding and love? I wanted to look first into what had been culturally given to me instead of cherrypicking from someone else’s orchard. I’m driven by a desire for a spiritual practice of caring for the gift of life in soil, water, air, plants, and animals. I’m looking for ways to cultivate affection and sustain my spirit.

In my haphazard searching, I remembered that the Apostle Paul offered signs of the spirit in action. He called those signs fruit, the produce of the spirit, and he gave the fruit names: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These fruit are fairly famous in sermons and Sunday school, often presented as personal values about how to be nice. After all these years, I can still quickly recite them.

I now speak them out loud every morning, but I say them slowly, with attention and intention, almost to taste and digest the words. Then, without expecting to, I did just that. I’d been searching for conserving and loving tenets for a sustainable agriculture, and maybe here they were. They were even called fruit! They certainly sound like what I’ve heard from some farmers, gardeners, and foresters, the ones that can’t help speaking sweetly about the land.

The fruit of the spirit aren’t standards to achieve. I now see them as practices to form relationships. Or maybe they are in fact fruit: the result of growth and the seed for more growth. They are what we sow in order to grow and plant again. And we aren’t going to reap what we don’t sow. Not all seeds grow true to type, but I know I won’t find tomatoes on my squash vines or hazelnuts on my figs. We harvest the fruit because we planted its seeds.

We are now, and have been for a long time, seeing the fruit of our dominant agricultural spirit. These fruit also have names: waste, greed, extraction, limitless consumption, oversimplification, envy, imbalance, arrogance, ignorance. These fruit often produce soil erosion, groundwater depletion, pollution, antibiotic resistance, land theft, worker exploitation, decreasing nutrition, the overfed and the underfed, a bipolar climate. This dominant spirit is seeded by complicated hopes and by cutting costs, which necessarily means debasing life somewhere along the food chain and the supply chain. We heap understandable praise on increased yields, though that praise often ignores the fact that those increased yields depend on sly statistical maneuvering and a steady intravenous deluge of water and chemicals.

Instead of the bottom-line of profit, can we ground our farming in love? I’m shifting a little uncomfortably in my seat at such talk, peer pressuring myself that I’m getting too sentimental and worried that others are waiting for the part about efficient cash flowability. And why wouldn’t they? In the United States, a government-subsidized corporate feudalism produces insurmountable debt for many, increased concentration of land for a few, and a high suicide rate among farmers and especially farm workers. We have to get compensated to continue, but I believe sentimental is exactly what we need to get too, and I think many people working the land know it, and feel it too.

Who would keep farming, or want to get into farming, if they weren’t animated, for the land or for their family, by the fruit of the spirit I’m talking about? I’m no longer so picky about agricultural adjectives: sustainable, regenerative, organic, green, etc. I’ve heard one famous regenerative farmer recommend buying cheap real estate, farming to improve it, and then flip it for more money and move on, but that just digs us deeper in the same eroding hole. Bare minimum organic standards pay a little economic advantage in the short-term, but when costs climb and prices drop, the adjectives and standards might too. I now like to say land care: the arts and culture of farming, forestry, fishing and foraging. Our land cares for us in return.

With hesitation and a willingness to revise, I share fruit for an agricultural spirit, signs for a sustainable land care. Lists like this are of course no substitute for felt sense and lived experience. How-to manuals don’t replace working with this soil or this cultivar, just as traits of healthy relationships can’t replace emotionally attuning to our particular loved ones. I offer this list as a guide. Or maybe, I offer this prayer as a spiritual discipline for attuning to the land we care for.

Love is the nurturing care for growth. Caring for the land means caring about the land and not wanting to hurt it! The farm is not primarily a commodity, it is a community. A sustainable land care is rooted in affection, for the individual and the whole. Tending depends on tender love, in relationships with people and with the land. It also depends on fierce love that protects against violence and waste. If we do not love the place and its creatures, then we will not be the ones to offer sustaining solutions. We will not sustain what we do not love.

Joy is the passionate celebration of living things. A sustainable land care finds profound pleasure, and even humor, in the art of caring for the earth, caring for people, and sharing the surplus. Joy is the experience of love and begins to confuse work and play. Without joy, nothing is very satisfying. Joyful stewards might even start blurting out words like “delight” without blushing.

Peace is the moving rhythm of seasonal cycles. Instead of fighting, a sustainable land care is content to go with the flow of the place. It makes peace with land by ceasing all warfare language and activity. It keeps the peace of the place by maintaining order, of nutrient and water and carbon cycles, energy flows through trophic levels, and the soil food web. It also keeps the peace of the people by setting limits to growth, by repairing what can be made right, and redistributing access to wealth and land so people can continue caring.

Patience is the attentive watchfulness for ripe moments. It is not a bored or complacent composure. A sustainable land care prepares for the ripeness of the season, both with crops and with change. Forcing the earth or the community ahead of their readiness only leads to bitterness, but it does everything within its power to cultivate the conditions we need. Patience doesn’t control the weather or social climate, because it can’t, but it endures and persists by strongly and actively shaping for the right time. A sustainable land care gives up perfectionism in favor of timely growth, rotations of rest, and the deep roots of perennials.

Kindness is the tender treatment that adapts to our kin. A sustainable land care treats everything in kind, as we might treat ourselves. Not treating everything in the exact same way, but in keeping with common kinds, particular characters, true to their nature. Kindness respects our kinship with and our likeness to other living creatures and their right to be fully themselves. Our care imagines what our soils, plants, and animals might feel like, because we know what it feels like to be grounded, to grow towards light and warmth, and to hungry and fed. The land and its creatures are friends, and kindness treats them that way.

Goodness is the confident affirmation of the inherent blessedness of life. A sustainable land care confirms the dignity of living things. This place where we live and work is good as itself. Not from our engineering, not because of cheap real estate values, but as a place that is part of the earth. Plant and build in ways that praise this goodness and make it visible. Once again, our care trades in perfectionism for the process of growth, acknowledging blemishes and wounds but loving anyway. Growth is good enough and, as a farmer friend often said, “Good enough is good enough.”

Faithfulness is the ongoing commitment to cultivation and care. A sustainable land care commits to the place and trusts in the desire for life to grow itself. It is devoted to cycles and flows of life, loyal to loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, and good ways of relating. This care is also true to its word: not deceptive or misleading in what it does or grows or who actually does the work or how much it makes or doesn’t make growing. Faithfulness is reliable; as much as it’s up to itself, it’s not going anywhere because it’s given itself over in trust.

Gentleness is the soft touch that respects the goodness of all kinds. A sustainable land care looks for practices that nurture instead of control. It is compassionate toward limitations and makes changes gradually so that the land preserves the ability to heal itself. Show tenderness to the growth of soil and the flow of water, to our working bodies and the bodies of others working with us. Gentleness is considerate, meaning both thoughtful and empathic. For the sake of care, a sustainable land care imagines how its actions might be felt. Everything responds to good treatment.

Self-control is the honoring ability to make decisions for our lives and land. A sustainable land care is not privation, but the practice of plenty. It does not try to make a killing; it tries to make a living. Instead of maximizing production, it optimizes it by having enough. Another kind of self-control is the power to determine our lives, from saving seeds to resisting toxic wastes dumped near our homes to communal forms of ownership. A sustainable land care can be faithful to land because the caretakers are empowered to stay there, and it insists that those who do the work own the land and benefit from its abundance. Most farm workers are Hispanic while most farm owners are white. This care honors migrant workers by giving ownership to the caretakers that actually do the work but are denied the title of farmer. It recognizes that people of all colors, but especially black and brown and native ones, have been forced from their land. A sustainable land care repairs the violence and theft as much as possible by telling the truth and advocating for land reform. Self-control protects loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, and gentle ways of relating.

The Apostle Paul said there is no law against such things. But he was wrong. The laws of our society often spoil these fruits by pitting growers and eaters against each other, the former needing an adequate livelihood and the latter needing affordable healthy food. Eccentric individuals lone-wolfing on their farms aren’t enough to resist this rot, and a local food movement isn’t a revolution, or a sustainable economy. And yet this list makes sense to me because I’ve actually seen these fruits. I’ve at least seen farmers and many others trying to make it possible for these fruits to grow.

This spirit is a felt sense that must be practical to create the conditions to keep feeling them. This spirit must be personal and economic, and therefore cultural. What we practice within ourselves scales up, and what’s scaled up shapes what we can practice. I’m advocating for a loving land care. As I see them, the fruit of the spirit are practices for and evidence of a land care that is loving and sustainable, and here these words are bred close to synonyms. That might be the best way to summarize what I’m trying to say. Love and sustainability become synonyms when we know every spring the soil sings and we plant as a harmony.

After all, we will be known by our fruit.

Jonathan McRay is a farmer, facilitator and writer. He was a founding member, ecological designer and restorative justice facilitator with Vine and Fig, a neighborhood homestead and education center, therapeutic community, and organizing hub. He has worked on diversified farms, wrote an introduction to watershed restoration and stream health for an action research initiative in a rural farming community, co-facilitated Uprooting Racism Farmer Immersion programs with Soul Fire Farm, and facilitated emotional well-being circles for a mental health and addiction recovery program. Jonathan grew up in Central Appalachia and lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where he propagates and cultivates beautiful and useful trees (and other plants) and consults and teaches on agroforestry, watershed health, and restorative justice with Blacks Run Forest Farm, a riparian nursery and folk school rooted in love and living soil.