Limits of Knowledge

As we’ve said before, among our favorite winter activities is a trip to the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention.

When our week of seminars concluded, we reflected on new insights on how to improve our stewardship of what the Lord has given us with the farm.

There were many great topics such as managing cucumber beetles while conserving pollinators, no-till versus plastic bed vegetables, why curcurbits collapse, and water quality and herbicide effectiveness.

Like other farmers, we have a lot to consider before another growing season is upon us. These conferences really showcase the advances in soil science, plant genetics, and disease, pest and nutrient management.

We are grateful to live in a time when the scientific method continues to yield such knowledge and new discoveries. Yet, this opportunity to hobnob with the broader agricultural community also showcased several biblical truths.

For example: Farming is hard, and it will always be hard. It is supposed to be hard — long hours, unpredictable weather, machines that break down, and weeds, insects and diseases that become resistant to our control methods.

It is a constant battle. This is no accident. Genesis 3:17-19 lays it out: “Because you have ... eaten from the tree which I forbade you, accursed shall be the ground on your account. With labor you shall win your food from it all the days of your life. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, none but wild plants for you to eat. You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground.”

Dominion and Stewardship

Notwithstanding labor as a consequence for sin, God has given us dominion over his works, which means we are the stewards of his creation, including plants, animals and land.

Through our God-given ability to reason and communicate with others, we have the ability to mitigate some of challenges we face as farmers.

Psalm 8 confirms this: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.

“When I look at our heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

“Yet you made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea.”

The complexity and beauty of his creation are beyond our understanding. As we listened to presentations on how to improve tomato yield and quality, we were humbled by how much we take for granted.

Beyond proper pH, timely water and macronutrients, there is a delicate dance of many micronutrients that gives us the blessing of a truly great tasting tomato.

In another presentation, a potato scientist taught us how to design our own farm experiment. In general, these experiments have a control plot and another plot where one variable is altered.

Yes, one variable. Why? Because an equation with six, eight or 10 variables would overwhelm the “fuse rating” of our brains, sort of the like the difference between simple addition and solving a calculus equation.

It was all a bit reminiscent of that great childhood Disney movie “Fantasia,” during which Mickey Mouse decides to play his absent master set to the score of Dukas’ famous “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

However, unlike the real sorcerer, Mickey understands only part of the formula. What results is unintended chaos, as each “adjustment” Mickey makes has yet another unintended effect.

Sometimes, our attempts to alter our natural world don’t look too different from this.

So the vegetable convention was another great week of learning and networking, and realigning our attitude toward our adventure in agriculture.

We gratefully acknowledge God’s sovereignty and majesty. We thank him for calling us as his servants, and equipping us to be both his stewards and his witnesses to the world.

The fact that we get to grow food to feed his children is a great blessing and privilege.

This post was originally published on Lancaster Farming.

In Search of Perfection

It’s always fun when we get to connect with other farmers, increase our agricultural knowledge, and network with suppliers and vendors.

One of the annual events we enjoy is the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention. At events like this we find new ideas, build relationships with old and new friends, and stimulate our thinking about how we can improve our processes and practices on the farm.

Last year, we were excited to learn about a variety of potato that might significantly enhance our production.

For many years, we have been devoted to the sturdy, reliable and tasty Kennebec potato. It has been a mainstay in our crop lineup, and it has served us well.

However, we have noticed that depending on weather conditions, the spuds are prone to growing into weird shapes, sometimes with multiple protrusions coming out of them.

There have been times, especially when we have worked with young people in the fields, that the queer-looking shapes of the potatoes became the focus of attention and basis of a contest to find the most comical looking tuber in the land.

Alas, this would unfortunately descend into less productive potato picking because the youths became preoccupied with examining each potato for its humor value.

We would have to work to steer the competition back to quantity of yield rather than uniqueness of shape discovered in the dirt.

So last year at the convention, we were delighted to be introduced to the Eva potato. The Eva is beautiful to behold — consistently uniform and almost perfect in shape, easy to process and an overall good-looking spud.

The Eva was so attractive, we found ourselves looking down in judgment at our old friend, Kennebec, ready to turn from or even deny our longstanding association with it.

We were sold on Eva. It wasn’t until harvest that we learned about a weakness we had not anticipated — Eva potatoes are prone to bruising, especially when handled by the hundreds of 14-year-old boys who come from schools all over the region to help with our potato harvest every year.

The tradeoff was not worth it.

Heart of the Matter

It’s easy to find a spiritual truth in this humbling experience. We too often judge others, even within the church, by appearances.

We may be in search of the perfect Christian, or worse yet, we may be tempted to portray ourselves as having it all together with an external display of spirituality — church attendance, Bible study, prayer.

But we know there are no perfect people, no perfect disciples. And God has made it clear throughout Scripture that he knows the heart of each person and it is the condition of our heart that matters the most, not how we look on the outside.

We learn this in the selection of David to be king. When Samuel the prophet is preparing to anoint God’s chosen one, he is guided by God in 1 Samuel 16:7: “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ ”

Many generations later, in Luke 16:15, Jesus addressed the Pharisees, who loved money, image and power: “He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.’ ”

Just as with the produce in the fields, where one genetic trait may be favorable but comes with a less appealing characteristic underneath, each one of us has imperfections that we may try to hide or worse yet, that we may be oblivious to.

One person is hardworking but also judgmental. Another person is full of grace and mercy, but doesn’t always follow through on commitments.

We are called to serve one another and serve with one another in unity of the Spirit. We are to approach each one of our brothers and sisters in love, and to see them as God sees them — precious and the object of his great and unfailing love.

There is no perfect potato and no perfect person, but there is perfect love.

Our search for perfection can be satisfied only when we open our hearts to the perfect love of God the Father, expressed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and made available to us through his Holy Spirit.

This post was originally published on Lancaster Farming.

Sing a New Song

Long ago, Jim found his way down our farm road. He wore an expansive and brilliant smile. He told us he had been watching our operation for a while and wanted to help, but he knew his back wasn’t strong enough for the labor required on the farm.

But when he saw our old Byron 8600 bean harvester arrive, he felt compelled to step forward and offer his services.

He was an equipment operator by profession, and he assured us that he knew how to take the “beast” apart, put it back together again and fix anything wrong with it.

Little did Jim know, we had been praying about how to maintain this very bean harvester. We almost always relied on used equipment, which seems to be made to last forever.

This combine was going to vastly improve our green bean harvest, but it had already served many years someplace else, and needed some serious TLC.

From that moment on, Jim has been a mainstay at the farm, helpful in countless ways. Yet it is not just his skill with equipment repair that is so valuable. His love for the Lord and joy in faith are especially contagious.

Anyone who has met or worked with Jim at the farm knows that his lips sing praise for the Lord pretty much continuously.

“I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live” (Psalm 104:33).

Jim struggles, of course, as we all do, with the challenges of life, which can derail the walk of faith. But before long, his smile returns along with a witness to God’s goodness.

Just recently, Jim showed us the strength available to a follower of Christ.

He experienced a devastating loss the week before Thanksgiving. There was a terrible accident, and Jim learned suddenly that he would now shoulder the responsibility to raise three of his very young grandchildren.

He had already cared for an older grandson for most of that boy’s life. Now Jim would be starting over with three young ones whose daddy had died.

Even in the midst of the shock and grief that Jim was experiencing, he cried out to God for help. Why did this happen? How would he have all that he needed to properly care for this new family? How would he be able to minister to their broken hearts when his own was broken?

Compassions That Fail Not

On the night of the accident, after the effects of the news had started to seep into his being, Jim stepped outside.

Not unlike Abram’s call from God in Genesis 15 to “Look up at the sky and count the stars — if indeed you can count them,” Jim’s face lifted up to heaven in search of the good God he knew.

The next day, Jim came to the regular Bible study held at the farm before every Saturday harvest. He witnessed to everyone gathered that God did meet him in the night sky and gave him the specific encouragement he needed to love his family, be the father they needed and to give God glory.

Jim felt renewed in strength and recommitted to trusting God for his daily provision. Naturally, he broke forth in praise for the Living God.

It will be a difficult road to travel, no doubt. But he knows he will not be on it alone. The children in his home — his new family — will be cared for by one who knows the Shepherd King.

And everyone at the farm has been blessed and inspired by Jim’s faith, and by God’s pouring out of love in the time of need.

There are many mysteries in this life; the disappointment of not understanding can be difficult to bear. Yet, we have really only two choices in such times — to trust in God, or not.

To not trust in him is to disregard all the evidence that he is the Potter and we are the clay. To trust in him is to embrace his great love for us, without understanding the entire plan.

This is easy to say, hard to live. Indeed, God’s question in Job 38:4: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand,” is still a timeless hard truth.

Later that week, as Jim and I talked, gazed at the night sky and sought comfort amidst tragedy, we also recalled the faith affirming words of one our favorite hymns, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father.

There is no shadow of turning with Thee.

Thou changest not; thy compassions, they fail not.

As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.”

This post was originally published on Lancaster Farming.

Every Person Has a Story

It happened one morning not too long ago. The driver of the tractor-trailer pulled into the farm and came down the lane to the barn area around 5:30 a.m.

He was picking up potatoes that had just been harvested the day before, and he would be delivering them to impoverished communities in West Virginia.

We have come to understand with some degree of clarity that the opportunity to cross paths with someone may be fleeting, but it may also be a valuable encounter.

For many years, we were so busy with the farm that we rarely made time for sharing life with others. We likely missed many messages from the Lord as a result.

After we finished loading the trailer together, we got to talking over cups of coffee before he headed back to West Virginia.

After describing some common farm experiences, he mentioned that he had served in Vietnam. We had lots of older friends who had served there, so we asked him to tell us more.

He said he was an RTO — radiotelephone operator — and he went on to describe his situation. As the RTO for the company, he was the hub of communications to receive instructions, get help and more.

He reported activity on the ground and worked closely with the unit’s commander. He said RTOs had an exceptionally short life expectancy. It was as if the RTO wore a large target on his back. Actually, he wore a large antenna on his back. It made him vulnerable to being spotted, our new friend said.

It was chillingly obvious why he would have been a favorite target of the enemy. If his unit were cut off from communications, it could not summon airstrike support or call for help with casualties. If the enemy could pick him off, the rest of the unit would be badly crippled.

Sure, snipers go after strays who are on the periphery. But taking out the communications hub has much greater impact.

So it is for us all. If our communications with one another — whether in the fields, in our families or in our churches — become frayed or fragmented, we are much more vulnerable to attack.

As Martin Luther so aptly said in his famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” — “For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe. His craft and power are great. And armed with cruel hate. On earth is not his equal.”

Yes, our ancient foe is clever. He knows he can destroy a Christian leader’s effectiveness by attacking the leader’s ability to communicate, encourage, teach and direct.

How often have we been rocked by revelations within our churches when people in leadership suffer “falls from grace” due to sin and corruption?

When that happens, their witness is tarnished.

What is our best defense? The hymn’s second verse gives us the answer — “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing ... and he must win the battle.” So we look to our fortress, Jesus Christ, for protection and strength.

In Psalm 46 we read: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar, and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

“The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress ...

“He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.’

“The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

Our farm ministry is unusual in the number of people who help with the harvest or distribute the bounty to people in need.

Even so, there is a network of people in every farm operation, and good, clear, honest and reliable communication is a key to success. Put Christ at the center of your daily communication.

As our new friend got ready to leave, we asked him how he survived his tour of duty. He said the Lord gave him a sign when a rocket-propelled grenade directed at him and his best friend failed to explode.

As his truck pulled away, we reflected on our conversation and marveled that God had spared this man’s life in the jungles of southeast Asia for many untold reasons and purposes, but one of them was clearly so that in 2017 he would minister to people in need in West Virginia and bless these potato farmers in Maryland with his story — a witness of the goodness and power of God.

This post was originally published on Lancaster Farming.

What's in a Name?

When we first embarked on a farm ministry in 1998, it was in response to our pastor’s challenge to live out the call to discipleship.

He said if we want to follow Christ and serve the least among us, we must use the gifts that have been promised to us in connection with our faith.

For us, there wasn’t a strong sense of our spiritual gifts, but we had a strong desire to serve others through the land, with the beauty and richness of God’s creation.

So, the farm ministry was born to provide fresh produce for the hungry, and we summoned the assistance and sweat equity of those in our congregation — especially the youth.

Within a few years, we decided to incorporate as a separate nonprofit. In addition to assembling a board of directors, we had to come up with a name for the corporation.

We labored over this task for more than a little while. Ultimately, we chose a name that we felt could point folks to meaningful application.

We chose the name First Fruits Farm, and we looked forward to opportunities to explain its meaning to our volunteer farmhands.

We knew that the concept of “first fruits” was not easily retrievable to most folks, especially those unfamiliar with the Bible, and we believed this would provide a springboard for conversation about why we grow, harvest and donate fresh food for the hungry in our communities.

Little did we realize that our name almost became a stumbling block to understanding. People had trouble with it.

They didn’t say or remember it correctly. We were confused with other food operations. It became an inside joke when article after article in local print media would get our name wrong — calling us Fresh Fruit Farms, for example.

Once, a local TV station came out to do a story on the ministry and the schools that sent hundreds of students to serve at the farm.

We explained to the reporter that although it may seem obvious to please get the name right, and we’re sorry to belabor the point — because, you see, others have goofed it up — but we are called First Fruits Farm, and there is a reason for it.

This reporter recorded the news story literally standing in front of and with the camera trained on our farm sign, and proceeded to report on the work being done for the hungry at “Fresh Food Farms.”

God’s Bountiful Blessings

The Old Testament of the Bible is full of references, festivals and requirements to make offerings to God.

Some offerings are made as a symbol of repentance from sin. Some are made as a sign of praise and worship. Some offerings are made as a ritual celebration of a season or temple calendar event.

The “first fruits” offering was made as part of the harvest festival, and to signify that any bounty came as a result of God’s goodness and provision, so an offering of the first — the top, most select part — of the harvest should first and foremost be given to honor God in thanksgiving for providing the abundance of the harvest and bringing us to this season of celebration.

We named our nonprofit First Fruits Farm to remind people that all of the gifts that we enjoy, indeed every blessing in our lives, come from Almighty God, the source of everything good.

When we offer the first of the harvest of that blessing back to him, we invite his glory to be revealed through it.

We think of the parable Jesus shared in Luke 12: 16-21: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, you have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy. Eat, drink and be merry.’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

We should not try to keep and hold tight God’s blessings for ourselves and for our own pleasure, but instead offer them back to him for his glory to be made manifest as he uses them to bless others.

That is when the harvest is most fruitful for the kingdom and the most meaningful for us.

This article was originally posted on Lancaster Farming.