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Back to the Earth

Jesus called his disciples to become fishers of men, but a postulant in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas is convinced the calling does not stop there. He’s looking to make them into farmers, too.

For 33-year-old seminarian Ragan Sutterfield, disconnection from the soil is a rampant spiritual problem that calls for a return to agrarianism. In Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us (Cascade), he posits the “farmerhood of all people,” in which all claim responsibility for helping manage the land well.

“We must learn to think and act deliberately like farmers,” said Sutterfield, a first-year master of divinity student at Virginia Theological Seminary. “We must carry within us this sense that we are called to ‘serve and keep’ the land.”

Married with two-year-old daughter, Sutterfield already has cultivated close ties to the land in his native Little Rock. He’s been a farmer. He’s also founded and run a nonprofit farm where troubled youth find a productive outlet.

Now he sees an agrarian resurgence unfolding across the United States. When he attends farming conferences, half the participants are under 30. Community gardens are proliferating in cities and towns. Churches have roles to play in encouraging agrarian thinking, he says, and he expects to be part of that work when he joins the priesthood.

“We need priests and accountants and teachers who pay attention to the soil as much as we need farmers to care for it,” Sutterfield said. “In fact much of the ecological crisis we now face is because most people don’t think about the soil. They think it has nothing to do with them. What agrarianism does is remind us all that our life is dependent, in quite radical ways, upon the soil.”

Congregations can do a lot, he says, to foster habits of caring for the land. If they own land, even as little as a half-acre, they can rent it out to small farmers. Some host farmers markets, he said, while others make their kitchen spaces available for small-scale food production. They guide people to recognize how consumption comes at a real cost to the Earth, depending on what’s on the plate.

“We must make the cultivation of humility a critical part of our work,” Sutterfield said. “It also means that confession and penance must be a regular part of our life. When we bless a meal we must also sometimes, maybe even often, say that we are sorry for it.”

Cultivating Reality helps readers see links among poor health, environmental destruction, industrial farming, and consumer demand for fast, convenient, highly processed foods. Solutions begin with awareness, he said, and churches have substantial roles to play.

“When we begin to pay attention to our waste, both from our bodies and what we throw away,” Sutterfield said, “then we will begin to see that there are many ways in which we can contribute to the cultivation of a flourishing creation.”


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