Dean Steven Peay, left, with John Gehl, founder and chairman of the Faye Gehl Conservation Foundation • Nashotah House

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald | g.jeffrey.macdonald@gmail.com

The seminary with a farming heritage sells land to an earth-friendly foundation.

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Nashotah House Theological Seminary might be best known for producing classically trained priests, but a new deal with a local foundation is giving the school a second calling as a national leader in land stewardship.

In January, Nashotah House included a key proviso in its sale of 260 acres of picturesque Wisconsin farmland to the Faye Gehl Conservation Foundation. The acreage went into a conservation easement, which means this tract 30 miles west of Milwaukee will never be developed into housing subdivisions or an office park.

“I see this as an exercise in good stewardship because we’re ensuring that this land is going to stay what it is,” said the Very Rev. Steven Peay, Nashotah House’s dean and president.

But staving off developers is just the start of what makes the project a favorite among environmentalists who say seminaries need to be leaders in land management. The foundation plans to reverse the nutrient-depleting effects of conventional farming methods. The goal: restore the soil to the healthy, microbe-rich state that it enjoyed centuries ago “in the time of the buffalo,” as chairman John Gehl says.

“The whole thing worked before the farmer got here,” said Gehl, whose family owned and operated Gehl Foods, a private-label manufacturer until private equity investors bought the firm last year. “Then, when the farmer got here, he basically destroyed the biology.”

The deal is sure to disappoint Milwaukee-area developers who were calling the school with hopes of buying the farmland, which is located idyllically on a bluff overlooking Upper Nashotah Lake. The seminary could have sold to a developer for 10 times as much as the Gehl Foundation ultimately paid, said Diane Plantenberg, associate dean for institutional advancement. Both parties declined to disclose the sale price.

In choosing to work with the foundation, Nashotah House is making the most of its asset, Plantengberg said. The land was generating only about $15,000 per year in rental income from tenant farmers who grew corn and soybeans.

Now pesticide-free farming methods and prayer will again flourish side by side, just as they did at Nashotah House’s founding in 1842. What’s more, the sale helps build the seminary’s endowment. The arrangement could also bode well for the seminary’s future, especially if close ties to a cutting-edge, experimental farm empower Nashotah House to attract prospective seminarians who bring a passion for organic growing methods and conservation.

“I’m hoping that this will give us a chance for folks to see that you can be a traditional conservative seminary and still be able to dialogue,” Peay said.

Nashotah House would like to build its enrollment, which now stands at about 100 students across all degree programs. To that end, Peay is urging bishops who have not sent anyone to Nashotah in years to take another look based on the quality of priests it has trained. Some bishops are showing a measure of openness to the prospect, Peay said. He now hopes the revamped farm will help prepare the path from liberal dioceses to Nashotah, Wisconsin. Observers say it might work.

“I get a lot of young people telling me: ‘I feel called to the ministry, and I feel called to some form of agriculture,’” said Brian Sellers-Petersen, co-chair of the Food Farm & Faith Network at the Beecken Center at the University of the South’s School of Theology. “If they were Presbyterian, I’d tell them, ‘Oh man, you’ve got to go to Princeton. They’re doing some wonderful things.’ Or if you’re Methodist, go to Duke. I don’t have any place to point Episcopal seminarians.”

That could be changing. With this large-scale commitment to long-term soil restoration, Nashotah House stands to become a sustainable agriculture leader among the Episcopal Church’s 10 seminaries and on the ecumenical landscape as well, said Sellers-Petersen.

To date, only a few mainline seminaries have superior programs integrating sustainable agriculture with theological education, Sellers-Petersen said. He listed four: Duke Divinity School, Wake Forest Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Episcopal seminaries generally have made smaller steps. At Sewanee’s School of Theology, organic gardens provide vegetables for the cafeteria and allow students to tend small plots as a hobby if they wish. But no Episcopal seminary has an agriculture initiative on the scale of what’s in the works at Nashotah House.

For those who pray and study on the shores of Upper Nashotah Lake, the Gehl deal evokes the institution’s past. In the 19th century, Nashotah House owned more than 2,000 acres that were gradually sold off; this year’s sale involved the last of the seminary-owned tracts. In the early days, students worked the land as vigorously as they studied and prayed. As late as the 1960s, the school ran a dairy operation, but that disappeared as seminaries came to focus entirely on their core competency of educating and forming priests.

Now it’s possible that working the land somehow could once again be part of the Nashotah House experience, at least as an option for interested students. Trends suggest some would jump at the opportunity to make the land part of their life.

The Gehl project puts Nashotah House in step with one of the hottest trends in Episcopal ministry. Organic farming has struck a chord across the Episcopal Church in recent years as faith communities dedicate portions of their real estate to raising organic produce and sharing it with people in need. About 480 Episcopal congregations now practice organic farming, according to the Food Farm & Faith Network. Diocesan-level support is growing, too. The Diocese of Los Angeles now works with all its congregations to help them use their land resources for organic farming.

“The center of gravity in the religious environmental movement has been on the liberal wing,” said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, an interfaith advocacy group for the environment. “That’s another reason why this kind of commitment is really significant.”

As an Anglo-Catholic seminary, Nashotah House is more theologically conservative than most of its Episcopal counterparts, yet it stands to become the standard-bearer for sustainable agriculture.

At this point, Nashotah House has no specific plans for how to make the Gehl farm a part of seminarians’ experiences, other than to expect that interested students will have access to the land in one way or another. But Peay says the possibilities are as vast as the prairie. Students could potentially learn how to farm and restore soil during their years in Nashotah, or explore how Christocentric theology in the Benedictine tradition sustains a particular conservation ethic.

“Why do we care about the environment? Because God made it, and God cared enough about it to take human flesh to redeem it,” Peay said. “If that’s the case, then what we have to do is be good stewards of it.”

Because Gehl has a long-term vision for soil restoration to pursue, the land will not be dedicated immediately to the production of food crops. First will come cover crops, such as clover or grasses that stay in the ground year-round and become a sustaining food source for microbes in the soil. Over time, Gehl plans to introduce cattle grazing, which adds manure for fertilization. The uneaten cover crop gets trampled and provides even more food for the prolific, nutrient-producing microbes in the soil.

Gehl expects earthworms to return eventually, along with nutrient-rich organic vegetable crops to grow alongside the cover crops. What will not return are the liquid chemicals that farmers use to raise crops in nutrient-poor soil. Likewise, the pollution such chemicals cause in the form of phosphorous runoff into local streams, ponds, and lakes will be just a memory.

Gehl expects school groups to visit the farm on field trips. Look also for universities to send students armed with research equipment for documenting what happens when depleted soil makes an epic comeback. And expect seminarians, whether in structured classrooms or open fields, to ponder anew what it means to abide closely in the rhythms of nature and God’s economy.

“We hope to open that door too: How do we talk about sustainability and appropriate use of natural resources?” Peay said. “How do we see these things in a theological light? It opens a whole other realm for us.”

Nashotah Renews Roots

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