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.

Harvest of Blessings

Our pastor used to say, “Look for the blessing in each day.” He liked to remind the church that God’s goodness is all around, and that God intends us to live joyful, peaceful lives, which is possible when we trust in him.

Some of the most reassuring words in all of Scripture are found in the beloved wisdom attributed to King Solomon: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

It seems that this wisdom is clearly understood by many farmers, whether or not they can quote the Bible passage.

We have enjoyed many a conversation with farmers who seem to be eternally optimistic. They know from experience that you don’t have to look too far on the farm to find a blessing or evidence of God’s favor.

If you don’t find it over here, well, it may be apparent over there. For us, the deep truth of this wisdom is not lost, but sometimes it is covered by weeds.

When our children were very young, we moved out to the “country,” which meant a small parcel just south of the Pennsylvania- Maryland line. It was April, and we were all excited to explore the space of our lush backyard.

The previous owners had left us a surprise. We discovered buried treasure when we first tilled the garden patch. To our delight, small red potatoes appeared in the dirt. They had never been harvested.

That afternoon, our young children filled two 5 gallon buckets with perfect little potatoes, and we were all thrilled. This was the beginning of our adventure in growing food — even though we had nothing to do with growing this food — and in particular our fascination with potatoes was born.

We started to grow potatoes every year, and when we moved to the farm several years later, it became a staple crop.

Since our farm is a nonprofit, dedicated to growing food for people in need, we recognized early on that the spud would be a valuable part of our production.

The potato crop promised good yields per acre. It is easy to store, popular and, best of all, it will wait until we have enough volunteers assembled to harvest.

Twenty years later, we look forward every season to a bumper crop of potatoes. The size and yield vary with the timing and amount of rainfall, but it remains a pretty reliable crop.

We have upgraded our potato harvesting equipment over the years, but we still need many hundreds of hands to pick up all the taters.

It can be quite fun. And we have discovered, too, that the heavy, dirty work of potato harvesting is best accomplished by 14-year-old boys who need community service hours.

Let’s just say we became a tad bit proud of our potato growing prowess.

Weathering a Change

Now it came to pass that this November we were closing in on the end of the harvest season. We had just 6 acres of potatoes left to gather, and the growing season would be complete.

We did not, however, factor in several days of cold rain followed by a record low of 18 degrees.

To our dismay, as we made our way out to the potato field with a host of eager volunteers ready to pick up what our digging equipment unearthed, the cold weather had wreaked havoc on the crop.

Most of the potatoes were frozen and no longer salvageable.

But wait!

That same cold snap had accomplished something amazing in another section of the farm. We observed some deep green coloring in the landscape that was otherwise brown at this point.

There was a small kale field that we had previously figured would just be plowed under because it was so overrun with weeds.

The same frigid temperatures that humbled us in the potato field killed all the weeds that had been choking the kale, and the green kale was now visibly triumphant and calling out to be included in the fall harvest.

Our volunteers regrouped in the kale field, and several hours later we had a beautiful harvest of many hundreds of pounds of green leafy vegetables.

We had found the blessing in the day, and we were filled with joy after all. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Maybe the lesson will stick this time. There is blessing in every day, and it is not too hard to find when your trust is in the Lord.

This post was originally published on Lancaster Farming.