Sometimes things don’t work out — but sometimes…

Sometimes things don’t work out.

The last Friday of this past June, on one of the hottest days of the summer, a handful of volunteers from the First Baptist Church of Elkin, NC helped set out 800 sweet potato slips at Healing Springs Acres. We should have harvested them sometime in the middle of October.

With no irrigation the tender shoots didn’t stand a chance in the heat. Only about 5 of the shoots survived the 12 to 15 scorched days from when they were set out until it finally rained on them. Rabbits and deer ate the few that survived. Rain was steady after it started but the long, hot, dry spell was too much. We didn’t even get enough sweet potatoes for a pie, much less the thousand or so pounds we’d hoped to give away.

You may already have worked out that planting the sweet potatoes on one of the hottest days of summer and not watering them for a week and a half didn’t make for the best chance of a flourishing crop. Well, of course. However, the slips were a free gift. We weren’t in control of when they were given to us and they had to go in the ground within a week. There wasn’t anything else to do. We didn’t yet have water at the farm for irrigation. The rains have been good to us over all, but this time there just wasn’t enough moisture.

Sweet potatoes are generally regarded as a super food, which is actually more of a marketing term than a scientific one. It refers to foods particularly high in nutritional chemicals and other healthful benefits, and with few negative qualities like high fat content. The dual criteria for what we cultivate here at the farm is that it be densely nutritious and have a decent shelf life. Both matter. Some of the folks who end up eating food from Healing Springs Acres don’t get regular, nutritious meals. It’s all the more important then that the meals they do eat are nutritious. The shelf life matters too. We need to have as much time as possible to harvest and distribute food so that it can be used beneficially before spoiling.

Sweet potatoes fit both of our criteria. So it’s even more disappointing that the first sweet potato crop at Healing Springs Acres was a colossal failure. Sometimes things don’t work out.

Anyone who knows me can readily see that I don’t miss many meals. Unfortunately, that’s not true for enough other people. Recently I shared on facebook a newspaper article from a nearby city, Greensboro, NC. That article reported the combined populations of our neighbors in Greensboro, NC and my home town of High Point, NC as 4th in the whole country by a then recent Gallup poll for people who say they don’t have enough money to buy food. Neighboring Winston-Salem, NC was 3rd and Asheville, NC was 7th at the time.

Some reading this will be inclined to wonder what vices those families might be wasting their money on so that they can’t buy food. I have to admit that I wonder too. But, honestly, I don’t care. I can’t figure out a productive way to address complex issues like drug addiction, gambling, or any other expensive vices with a person who is still too hungry to hear an invitation to helpful guidance over the sound of the grumbling in the pit of their stomach – or soul.

I’m not professionally qualified to assess, or fully address, most of the complicated issues that might be contributing factors for someone’s hunger. I’d be willing to bet my motorcycle that the majority of readers here are likewise ill equipped to diagnose from a distance whether or not these families with children “deserve” to be helped. Even if we could make such an assessment, I still don’t care who “deserves” to be offered something to eat if they are hungry.

The article does provide a clue though about what some of these families were spending their money on before they found themselves in need of food. The Executive Director of one agency which provides meals and housing knew some of the people who where calling to ask for help. In her words, “Thing is, many of them had made donations just last year.” Apparently many of those needing help had been providing the same kind of generosity to their neighbors that they now needed from others. They weren’t necessarily wasting their money on vices at all. It may well be that, beyond their control, life just got more expensive than they could afford faster than they could fix the situation.

Sometimes things don’t work out.

Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” He didn’t say, “I was hungry and after I passed your needs assessment, you gave me something to eat.”

When I reflect on the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, I try to keep that in mind. That’s the Chapter where Jesus describes separating the sheep from the goats according to who helps the thirsty, hungry, sick, or those in prison. There’s nothing in that chapter about judging who does or does not deserve assistance. The only mention of judgment in that chapter refers to the judgment of those who don’t even try to help. I’m well enough aware that “helping” doesn’t always actually help. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help our neighbors though. It only means that we should be careful to do it well.

Why are so many of us so quick to assume the worst of anyone who needs help? Perhaps generosity is a better response than suspicion. After all, sometimes things don’t work out.

We’ve had our share of things not working out around Healing Springs Acres. The sweet potato crop was a failure. You may have read about recent vehicular difficulties which impact the farm. Getting electrical power to the farm has been difficult at best. Multiple housing solutions have fallen through at the last minute. Funding has been tenuous.

Sometimes things just don’t work out. Then again, sometimes they do.

Sometimes a spirit of generosity is so contagious that resources multiply into a more plentiful product that the mere sum of their parts. Sometimes a supportive community surrounds possibility and refuses to let it fail to grow to fruition. Sometimes the bountiful economy of God breaks into our own human economies of scarcity in ways that tempt us to claim providential miracles when in truth, as often as not, providential miracles are really just the natural results of faithful people venturing out to be the kinds of neighbors God has called them to be. That’s what has been happening lately at Healing Springs Acres.

Our regular monthly support has grown lately to about $500 a month and seems to be increasing. That comes in gifts that range in size from $10 to a couple hundred a month. We recently got word of a $25,000 contribution. Total fundraising for the coming year with cash and gifts in kind is just under $40,000 – about 25-30% of our first year’s needs including operating expenses and one-time infrastructure investments. I’ve finally located a trailer cheap enough to afford and nice enough for my daughters to visit. We can finally get power for winter construction projects. We have the resources we need for a chicken coop. There’s a fair chance we’ll have our own tractors in place by spring (but, if you’ve got a spare, we’ll still take it…). I got the title issues with The Pickle, my ’77 VW camper bus, worked out. Even Babe the Blue Ox has been running better after a rebuilt carburetor, an oil change, and new plugs and wires.

That’s all true because of an incalculable mixture of unexpected generosity, persistence, serendipity, hard work, and sheer good luck. A generous community of support is growing up around the possibilities represented by Healing Springs Acres.

As I walked out of the post office the other day with a $25,000 check in my pocket, a neighbor stopped and asked if we were going to water the crops next year. I was excited to say that we now have the infrastructure in place to irrigate and we won’t risk losing a whole crop again. He smiled and said, “Good – I want to help pay the water bill!” Thanks to a growing neighborhood of support, we can keep doing our best to be good neighbors to the folks around us for whom things haven’t worked out so well lately.

Sometimes things don’t work out – but, thanks be to God and good neighbors, sometimes they do!

Who is your neighbor?

On Naming A Truck

I’ve had more vehicle trouble in the last two years than in my entire previous life. No exaggeration. Nearly every vehicle I’ve owned, or even used, since I left Atlanta has had fatal mechanical issues. A blown engine, a toasted clutch, massive electronic failure. That’s just the Cliff’s Notes version of the highlights not including last week.

My vehicle needs are simple. I need:

– something reliable I can use to transport myself to and fro,
– something to carry up to two other people, with luggage, when my daughters are along,
– and something I can use to do work on the farm.

Obviously, I need a truck. Sounds simple. But, it hasn’t been.

I already own two vehicles. Neither one is a truck.

“Silver” on a little mesa overlooking Death Valley

The most reliable vehicle I own is my Harley, named Silver. With over 96,000 miles it’s never leaked a drop of oil from the engine during the time I’ve owned it – a rare claim for a Harley. I bought it in ’08 with 20,000 miles on it and can’t speak for its behavior during that period of its life, but since then it has behaved. There was a brief period in early ’10 when it leaked oil from the primary drive housing – which led to the above mentioned toasted clutch – but that was corrected and it’s been tight ever since. So – take that naysayers. Go pick on some other bike brand – preferably one of the ones made out of plastic. Leave my Harley alone.

Filling the primary drive housing

The bike only satisfies one and a half of my three needs. It will haul me. It will haul me to see my girls, but won’t haul all three of us with luggage. While I have used it to haul farm supplies and produce, it has obvious payload limitations. It’s not an acceptable primary vehicle. One of the most difficult decisions I’ve had over the last couple of years has been whether or not to sell the bike to re-allocate that money to some other form of more practical transportation. I don’t think I could.

Oh, believe it or not, I could survive emotionally without the bike. I’m not sure I could actually get enough out of it financially though to solve the resulting need for reliable transportation. Key word – reliable. There have been too many times when the other vehicles around me have let me down and the bike has gotten me there when I absolutely had to see a client or get to a meeting. I’m not sure the amount I could get out of it would replace it with something as drop dead reliable as it has proven to be. That, and it’s nearly the only thing in my life that never fails to make me smile while asking almost nothing of me… Silver stays.

The Pickle. It has a fridge, sink, stove, and sleeps 4 if you REALLY like each other.

The other vehicle I own is The Pickle, a ’77 Volkswagon Westfalia camper bus. Despite its reputation, it is also a fairly reliable vehicle. Quirky? Yes – but reliable. However, The Pickle suffers from a titling mishap between the state of GA and the state of NC which I won’t detail here because it’s my fault and I don’t like talking about it. Don’t ask. While The Pickle would actually satisfy all three of my vehicular requirements – and with style – the end of the story is that I haven’t yet been able either to register it in the state of NC to make use of it, or sell it to make use of whatever money I could get out of it. So, for now, The Pickle stays – and stays immobile.

When I left Atlanta, I was on a shoe string budget to support my daughters and myself while getting the farm started. A new vehicle, even an old new vehicle, just wasn’t in the budget. So, it’s been quite an odyssey over the past year and a half to solve my basic transportation needs on a knowingly and intentionally constricted budget. After the death of a Honda Civic during the limbo existence of an unregistered hippie van, I’ve driven a mid ’90’s model Nissan Maxima on loan from a generous friend to address needs one and two. Others have loaned the occasional pick-up when farm tasks demanded. That’s worked well enough, but I obviously needed a permanent solution.

I actually solved my transportation problem back in October of last year by negotiating an advance from a then client. It was enough to purchase a truck so I started looking. I struck a verbal agreement to purchase a truck that would have been nearly perfect for the farm. It was actually a truck I had purchased new in ’96 and later sold. There would have been absolute poetry in buying back my own truck. I was looking forward to writing that blog post – instead I’m writing this one.

After I inquired about buying the truck back, we agreed on a price and agreed on the sale with the timing of the transaction being contingent on the owner finding a suitable replacement. The price we agreed to was substantially less than the advance I had negotiated, so I applied the balance to other pressing financial needs and waited to receive word that it was time to consummate the sale. Instead I got word that the owner was backing out of our deal.

That left me with no truck, not enough money left on hand to get another truck, and still working off an advance with no resulting cash flow to put toward saving for another purchase. By this time I had taken a job with far greater time demands than would allow me to maintain the consulting work which would have made it easier to just go buy another truck. I was stuck for at least a year not being able to budget another vehicle purchase. That opportunity was a one time window which had been slammed shut on my fingers. For the record, it was my fault for trusting the deal to begin with. I should have known better.

An old truck in need of a new home.

Perhaps you can imagine the sort of salvation it felt like finally to have found an old truck that would mostly meet all three of my needs after having had the funds for purchasing it donated. The heavenly blue body of the old ’77 F150 may look like hell, but the truth is that the in-line, six cylinder, Ford engine is reputed to be pretty much “bullet proof.” This engine and 4×4 transmission are actually highly sought after as replacements for newer models. It’s not an interstate vehicle but it should be a long lived and useful tool.

Finding the truck was so exciting that, as many of you reading this will know, I immediately posted a “Help name this truck” thread on the Healing Springs Acres facebook page (which you can “like” to keep up with all the cool news from the farm). I had originally planned this blog post to be a pleasant stroll through the many heartfelt name suggestions, culminating in a reveal of my final choice – which I’ll get to in another few paragraphs or so…

A week ago today I went to pick up the truck. It runs like a sewing machine when I crank it. However, it doesn’t run at all when the engine is under a load once you get up to speed like, oh, say, going up a hill. I knew there wasn’t much gas in the tank and left a childhood neighbor’s house to go to the nearest gas station which involves going up a steep hill. Well, it involves attempting to go up a steep hill. The truck died. I coasted into a driveway, sat, got it cranked, and tried again. The hill I went down to get into this little valley isn’t as steep as the one that just thwarted me, so I tried going back that way to a different gas station. No go. Coast. Park. Sit. Crank… This time I made it farther up the steep side of the God-forsaken-death-valley-of-no-return, but not far enough. Tried the shallow side again to no avail. About the time I got off the phone with the wrecker service, I began to think up an entirely new set of potential names for this machine that I used to think I was going to enjoy getting to know.

Hitching a ride out of the God-forsaken-death-valley-of-no-return.

The names y’all came up with were much more flattering, cute, and quaint than the ones I conjured on the side of the road in the God-forsaken-death-valley-of-no-return. Altogether there were 68 entries. 12 of them got more than one vote. Oddly enough, Seymour, Tiffany, Turnip Truck, Blue Balls, Mephibosheth, and Consuela weren’t among the offerings which got affirmation from anyone but the authors. Go figure – although, I have to admit, Consuela does have a ring to it. In Spanish it is the feminized version of a word meaning, solace, hope, and consolation. Fitting, perhaps.Here are the top suggestions according to reader feedback:

Ole Blue (Blue, Old Blue, etc…)
Blue Bell
Tater Bug
Abby (for “Abundance’)
Blue Moon
Henry (Henry Ford)
The Blue Goose

Blue, Ole Blue, and other Blue variants were the clear front runners with over 25 combined votes. Fourteen for Ole Blue alone. Had the name decision ever been designed to be a simple vote, this would be the last sentence of this post. Funny thing is that when I posted the facebook invitation to suggest names, I had intended to add the disclaimer, “OK folks, Ole Blue is such an obvious choice as to constitute pandering so I’m counting on y’all for more creative suggestions than that,” but before I could get that added it had already been suggested more than once. I didn’t want to stifle the flow so I just let it go. However, I stand by my assessment and Ole Blue’s not going be the name.

My plan all along was to gather suggestions and let my daughters help decide. The cuteness of letting them participate should mitigate the frustrated whining and grumbling of those of you whose suggestions aren’t chosen. The youngest went with Henry, for Henry Ford, right out of the gate. She quickly changed her mind though to Blue Moon when she heard the reasoning behind the suggestion – that the truck looked like it would only run once in a blue moon. The eldest was disinterested. At first I assumed it was typical teen disregard for anything not deemed cool enough to be paid attention. Upon asking why she was so quiet I learned, as I often do with both of my daughters, that there was more wisdom there than I’d initially accounted for.

She was making a principled decision not to invest energy in what she had assessed was a doomed endeavor. “You can’t just get a bunch of suggestions and pick a name for a vehicle. It has to come to you on its own” she said. The child knows of what she speaks. She is the new driver of a burgundy wine colored little car. It came to her early on that her first car should be called, Winona. It fits.

With no consensus from the daughters, I was left to make my own choice. There was actually one suggestion which did resonate with me immediately and evoked fond childhood memories when I heard it. Babe. As in, Paul Bunyan’s Babe the Blue Ox.

Babe awaiting a rebuilt carburetor

As of this writing, the carburetor has been removed, the fuel filter cleaned, the fuel pump checked out, and the clarity of the gas seems to suggest a generally clean tank. The acceleration pump in the carburetor is being rebuilt and all should be well. I’m going with Babe because, after this episode, this truck sure enough better be as tough as a mythical ox. I’m about to put it work and if it doesn’t pull its weight, we’ll find out for sure whether or not the engine lives up to the reputation of being bullet proof.

Moving on — onto the farm!

The first potato

Since leaving my position as president of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Foundation in Atlanta in June of 2010, and tossing a perfectly good six figure position right out the window I have: lived in a relative’s basement one door away from dogs, camped on friends’ couches, lived in a bartered house, a few hotels, and a part-time parsonage.  All part of the odyssey to create, grow, and live on the farm known as Healing Springs Acres.

“Massy” plowing potatoes

Soon I will become the first full-time human resident at the farm in over 40 years.  This marks a major evolution of the ministry from its beginnings as an experimental garden plot to becoming a living, breathing ecosystem to grow food and give it away.  Healing Springs Acres is coming to life.  Not just as a farm, but as a community of generosity.  In our first two growing seasons over 50 people have come together to give away over 10,000 pounds of food.  That’s about 20,000 meals worth from just a little over an acre.

Freshly dug ‘taters ready to pick up

We’ve barely gotten started and we can do so much more: Planting generosity, Providing food, Proclaiming that others can do the same.

Tex Sample proclaims that one cannot build the relationships necessary to do substantially effective ministry among “survivors” and “hard living” folk by visiting them.  You have to join them.  Incarnation.  In a loose translation of the Hebrew word which corresponds to the idea of incarnation, he calls it “pitching tent.”

Bending and stooping and bending and stooping

One of Jesus’ less inviting sales pitches to would-be followers was, “foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  The tag line to this brilliant recruiting pitch was his oft offered invitation, “follow me.”  If that’s the standard of comparison, I’ve succeeded.  By any measure I am now poor and have nowhere to lay my head.  Well, that’s not technically true.  It is essentially true though and the technicalities which keep it from being actually true are tenuous at best.

Johnny The Hippie

In a little over a month I’ll finish my work as interim pastor in Elkin, NC and move on from the part-time parsonage which has become a full-time residence this last month as I transition from one housing solution to another.  Ultimately, I have a place to go – eventually – but timing is going to be an issue. The actual residence on the farm will not be ready by the time I need it to be.  Earlier this week I finally finished snipping through the pile of civic red tape which had previously bound up tangible progress toward getting water, a driveway, a septic system, power and some of the other ingredients essential to establishing residence on the farm.  The way is now clear, but there is still a ways to go.

Home sweet Allegro

I have access to an RV which will serve as a temporary way point on the way to establishing residence on the farm.  The only problem with that is that it’s illegal in my county to “live” in an RV other than in an officially designated campground.  So, technically, I won’t.  I’ll literally “pitch tent.”  As far as I can tell, there’s no law against plain ol’ camping – just RV camping.

Oh, I’ll use the RV – but I won’t “live” in it.  It will be hooked up to appropriate water and sewer resources and will have power as needed through a generator. Basically, it will be a glorified bath house and camp kitchen.  I have a perfectly good Kelty tent I’ve looked at wistfully for years wishing I made more time to use it.  Now, I will.

Yukon Gold!

The last time I used the tent was living in the Gulf Coast heat for a week while helping rebuild after the hurricanes.  It already has a few miles on it in service of a worthy mission.  May as well keep up the pattern.  I’ll “live” in the tent and use the RV for storage and cooking.  If that’s illegal, then consider this my official notice of intended civil disobedience in pursuit of a good cause.

Many of you will be sitting is some form of whatever you consider to be comfort as you read this.  You will be tempted to feel sorry for me as I weather this little timing glitch between residences.  Don’t.

Not quite half of the harvest

Those of you who have known me longest will recall that I spent my last year of college debating whether or not to get married right away or thru-hike the Appalachian Trail which, of course, is really just a six month migratory camping trip. It’s not like this sort of thing doesn’t appeal to me in all kinds of ways.  To quote Hank Jr., “A Country Boy Can Survive…

I’ll be fine.  I’ll be on the farm.  It’s what progress looks like in this situation.  It’s Incarnation.

A Farmer and a Preacher

What’s important is the ministry that happens at Healing Springs Acres.  The pictures you’ve been looking at as you’ve read this far are what really matters – this year’s harvest.  Ten of us gathered two weeks ago to pick up the potatoes we planted back in April.  We harvested over 2,000 pounds of white, yellow, and red potatoes.  Those potatoes were on the streets within days serving people who don’t have better options for a meal.  They were distributed by at least five different feeding ministries which are still serving them.  That’s what matters.

Double checking

A few months ago a pastor friend who knew of the housing related issues with which I was wrangling asked me what I was going to do.  I said, “I’m going to keep working to make Healing Springs Acres a reality until there just isn’t any way to keep going.  I’m going to grow food to give away to people who are far worse off than I am.”

End of the row

As bothersome as all this sounds, I still have plenty of workable options.  Having options, and the wherewithal to choose among them, makes one wealthy in ways not everyone gets to experience.  There are still plenty of folks out there worse off than me – and I can still do something helpful about that.

Maybe you can too…

“Worked like ‘barred’ mules…”

Two rows down…

Last Friday was one of the hottest days of the year by some accounts.  Depending on one’s source it was anywhere from 99 degrees to 103 degrees in the general area of Healing Springs, NC.  My sources ranged from to the car thermometer belonging to the barista in the coffee shop where I wrote the first draft of this blog post.

Four hearty souls from First Baptist Church in Elkin, NC came down to help set out about 800 sweet potato slips at the farm.  For a little perspective, that’s just over 3 rows 140 feet long and probably translates into about 1,000 to 1,400 lbs of sweet potatoes by mid October.

Seeking shade in an old mule barn.
More appropriate the we realized…

Our volunteers ranged in age from 15 to 71 and none of us within a decade of each other.  Neither youth nor older age kept anyone from putting in a good day’s work.  After disking a portion of the field earlier in the week, the five of us hoed hills by hand and strolled along in stilted rhythm with the shluuuurp sound of the self watering hand tobacco setter we used to plant the slips.  Despite the heat, with plenty of water, gatorade, and shade breaks — we worked like “barred” mules.

Two hard working machines!

One volunteer had explained earlier in the morning that “worked like a ‘barred’ mule” is one of the favorite expressions of his son-in-law – who is also a farmer in the Elkin area.  The farmer’s then fiance once asked, “What are you talking about…?” in response to his use of the metaphor.

He replied, “You know, you’d work a mule you ‘barred’ harder than you’d work one you owned.”

“Oh!” she said, “You’re saying ‘borrowed.’  All this time I thought you were saying ‘barred’” she replied, doing her best to approximate his pronunciation.

“Yeah!” he nodded, “…worked like a ‘barred’ mule!” not quite seeing, or hearing, the problem.

That old hand tobacco setter probably has more experience than all of us combined

No matter how you pronounce it, the five of us worked like “barred” mules in stifling heat last Friday.  There was an occasional breeze, but it was usually only enough to sucker you into a deep breath.  Of course, by the time you actually sucked in the anticipated refreshment of cool air the breeze would die and deliver only a chest full of searing humidity.

The two oldest workers seem to be the farthest ahead…

One of our co-laborers was an Iraq vet who recalled that the average temperature during his deployment was a dry 129 degrees Fahrenheit.  He didn’t hesitate when asked how much difference the humidity made.  No southerner will be surprised by his assessment that the humidity made that day’s work more torturous than anything he’d experienced in the dry desert sands.  Well, as far as the heat went. Let’s be clear – we weren’t being shot at in Healing Springs.

There have been casualties along the way though.  Looks like we’ll only grow potatoes this year at Healing Springs Acres.  Scheduling issues, equipment availability, rain and a few other complications conspired against getting the corn planted. We’ll save the seed and plant it in the spring.  Of course when I say, “we’ll only grow potatoes” keep in mind that we’re talking about several thousand pounds of potatoes by harvest.  We’ll have white ones, red ones, yellow ones and sweet ones. It will still be a bounteous year!

Worth the wait — and the work

Last Friday’s bounty for these hearty souls was a stop on the way back to Elkin for some Lexington BBQ — as had been promised to at least one volunteer as a reward.  That’s not, mind you, Lexington “style” BBQ as so many are wont to say.  That’s actual Lexington BBQ and it really is worth a days work in the stifling heat.  There are other things worth a hot day’s work.  One friend commented on facebook in response to a smaller report of our day’s work, “Your Big God is pleased, come winter you will be cooled and the hungry will be fed. That is doing church!

Amen Sister.  Amen.

Spring.2 – A Neighborly Season

FBC Elkin volunteers covering potatoes

After a deep winter’s hibernation spring has awoken me. The second season of planting at Healing Springs Acres has begun. A few weeks ago we planted 2,100 feet of potatoes in 7 rows 300 feet long. That’s not the royal “We.” I enjoyed the help of a Baptist Men’s crew from First Baptist Church of Elkin, NC. More about that in a minute…We’ve got a little over 500 pounds of red potatoes, white potatoes, and yellow potatoes in the ground. One variety, Yukon Gold, is reputed to be so succulent that they taste like they already have butter on them right out of the ground.

Carefully planting potatoes

Depending on whose estimate you listen to, and depending on moisture – always depending on moisture – that 500 pounds should grow into somewhere between 4 and 6 thousand pounds of potatoes by harvest. Let’s hope for 5 and see what happens. Either way – that’s a lot of potatoes.

His Laboring Few Kitchen

The kitchen that serves and/or preserves our produce probably can’t use that many potatoes. What they can do though is use them like a kind of currency. They are good at trading with other local feeding ministries when they have an abundance of any single item like potatoes. There always seems to be another ministry which needs what they have. Neighbors often help by trading. One of the things I like about working with His Laboring Few is that they are good neighbors.

A motley crew – but they sure can work!

Healing Springs Acres had a successful first season. We experimented with a small start to test our volunteer base and our food distribution relationships. Over 50 people were involved in one way or another in our first year – from prepping the land, to providing seed and fertilizer, planting, hoeing and cultivating, providing tools and materials, gathering and transporting produce, cooking the food fresh daily, preserving what couldn’t be cooked, and helping families who needed something to eat find their way out to the farm to pick their own.

Thanks Joe!

The number of volunteers on any given day ranged from up to 23 all the way down to 1 other person (THANKS Joe!). Over 85% of our volunteer labor came through our relationship with His Laboring Few, a biker ministry in Thomasville, NC which also serves a meal each weekday and serves as our primary distribution channel for the food we grow. Other volunteers came from my family, and from First Baptist Church, Denton.

In addition to a successful beginning with volunteers and food distribution, we had a productive harvest! From only 1.25 acres we harvested:

3 pick-up truck loads of corn
65 bushels of green beans
75 bushels of zucchini and squash
85 gallons of okra – yes, I know you don’t count okra by the gallon, but we were picking it in 5 gallon buckets, so it’s easier to count that way…


That’s approximately 8,600 pounds of food. A neighboring local farmer who has observed that land for over 60 years said it was the most productive he’d ever seen it. Some of our volunteers were quick to observe that they were sure this farm had been prayed over more than any other patch of ground anywhere close by. I’m sure the prayer didn’t hurt the lush yield. Neither did the 500 pounds of left-over fertilizer a neighbor spread before we planted last year.

Cutting potatoes

The second season’s potato crop will be rounded out with corn planted by the end of May. We should get a little more than twice as much corn as last year. Astute observers will notice that there is less variety in this year’s crops. Time is the culprit.

Chuck the Mad Farmer: Fellowship Garden organizer

Since the first Sunday in September of last year I have been serving as interim pastor of The First Baptist Church in Elkin, NC. Thus, the crew of volunteers from there. One of the things that drew me to them, and them to me, when we first discussed my service as their interim pastor was their “Fellowship Garden.” They have essentially the same purpose as Healing Springs Acres, they grow food to give away through local feeding ministries in the Yadkin Valley.  I’ve enjoyed working in their garden and, being the good sort of neighborly folk they are, they wanted to come down to Healing Springs to return the favor. That’s what neighbors used to call “swapping work.” They came with hoes, able bodies, and a few hundred pounds of potatoes to plant – including the succulent Yukon Gold variety. Did I mention they are reputed to taste like butter right out of the ground…?

Serving as their pastor has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I cannot imagine a better congregation with which to have first waded into the waters of congregational ministry. They are a brave, persistent, faithful, and sophisticated congregation with a delicious mixture of traditionalism and progressivism. I have spent 20 years in ministry in institutions which serve the Church and have served as a resource to congregations in a variety of ways, but I am essentially a beginner pastor. They have been a wonderfully forgiving congregation in which to make rookie mistakes and learn my first lessons of loving a congregation and leading among them.

I took the job as another way of funding my life in what I have been determined to make a “tent-making” endeavor, working as Paul did to support myself in ministry as I start and support the farm. While I hoped the position as interim would serve as an aid to the work on the farm by meeting my financial needs, it has actually served to sharpen the focus on the basic dilemma of the tent-making model. Given the kinds of work which are available to me I can either have enough time to work on the farm or enough money to support myself, but not enough of both to meet my family responsibilities AND support the growth of this ministry.

I would not trade the experience I gained from serving the Church in Elkin this past year for anything, but it has distracted me from the farm four days a week and has required me to plant a less than an ideal mix of crops.  As I mentioned, I’ve limited myself to only corn and potatoes this year. I can’t be at the farm regularly enough to tend beans, okra, squash and other produce that requires daily attention once it comes in.

I am thrilled to be entering our second season. I’m also a little frustrated and disappointed. The crop mix should be more diverse, and we should be tending three acres instead of the same one acre we experimented with last year. Healing Springs Acres can be and do more.

As my time as interim pastor concludes, I will need to change from the tent-making model of support to another model better suited to allowing Healing Springs Acres to grow into the ministry that it can and should be.

I’ll need a community of neighbors, near and far, to help with that. More to come soon about how to be a neighbor…

A good stand

June 11, 2011

A little over three weeks ago I was picking up rocks to clean the field for planting food to give away. This morning I stood looking at a good stand of crops and praying the weekend forecast for rain is true.

Late in the week before we planted, there was still too much rain to disk the field for the last time before laying off the rows. We caught enough of a break to get a tractor in the field and Mr. Snyder and I raced the fierce black storm cloud we hoped would pass to the south. He pulled a disk with a drag log behind it as I walked the field getting out the last of the rocks which threatened the disks. We lost the race and buckets of rain drove us to shelter in an old shed across the road. We haven’t had any rain to speak of since 5 days before planting.

Before the bottom fell out I had stacked my first pile of field rocks along the northwestern edge of the field. I smiled at the recollection of a conversation with a friend and former colleague from my time in Atlanta with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Connie, a true mid-western farmer’s daughter from the Missouri Ozarks, observed that one of the marks of a well tended farm was the piles of rocks accumulated over the years around the edges of the fields. There are still visible piles of weathered rocks sunken into the ground around the older fields of this farm which stand as evidence of careful tending by the Skeen family who made a home and a living here until a few decades ago. May this first pile of rocks I’ve stacked stand as a monument of gratitude for the privilege of continuing their useful care for this land.

Planting couldn’t have happened nearly as effectively as it did without the emergence of yet more local old-timers. Three of the four local men who have offered time, equipment, expertise, and help to the Healing Springs Acres venture are named Snider, or Snyder, depending on which family, or branch of the family, produced them. I can barely allocate the vowels correctly to the person myself, so there’s no way a distant reader could hope to tell them all apart. I’ll probably just use them interchangeably in reference to my various mentors and leave you to follow along as best you can.

After I had spoken in a local church near the farm Mr. Snider, a local builder, offered to bring his tractor and planter out to speed things along. My best option until then was a borrowed push plow to open a furrow and a hoe to cover the seeds. I was resolved to do it that way if need be, and was somewhat looking forward to being able to say that I had. Standing at the front of the church I did a quick calculation of the couple of days the hand planting would probably take me versus the handful of hours with the tractor. Without any regret at all for the lost literary beauty of the hand-planting-in-the-hardscrabble-earth-uphill-both-ways story I responded to the offer with a simple, “Yes sir, I’d appreciate that very much!” It took us longer to load, deliver, unload and reload the tractor than it did to plant, and it was worth every bit of it to me to have the work done, and to see the nice straight rows across the field. I had already begun to feel embarrassed ahead of time for the shamefully crooked rows I’m sure would have resulted from my novice manual plodding.

Planting turned out to be another of those attention getting experiences which seem to keep accumulating in this ministry adventure. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the oil and meal which wouldn’t run out after the woman entertained the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-14). I planned to start small this year. My friend Jon and I stood at the counter of Farmer’s Feed and Seed in Kernersville, NC with the owner and checked and double checked the quantity of seed we needed to purchase to plant just 8 rows of corn, 8 rows of green beans, 3 rows of squash, 3 rows of zucchini, and 4 rows of okra in 200 foot rows. After consulting charts and tables under the approving eye of an expert who’s been selling seed for decades we bought what I am sure was the correct amount of seed.

When Mr. Snider and I set up the planter we made sure it wasn’t planting the seeds too far apart. At the end of each row we took a handful of seed from one or another planter to add to the other to even them out as best we could for the next trip through the field. When we finished planting for the day, we’d planted 24 rows of corn, 28 rows of beans, 6 rows of squash & zucchini (but only used half our seed), and 4 rows of okra. I realize it sounds like we got the okra exactly right according to the plan. Actually we planted it by hand and as Mr. Snider followed me through the field covering the seeds with a hoe, he assured me I was dropping them three or four times too thick. I had soaked the okra seeds the night before as advised by all the old-timers and just couldn’t get my hands to turn loose of the wet, sticky seeds in accordance with his seasoned, patient instructions. We could have planted at least twice as many rows had my fingers been as mechanically precise as the planter plates.

Some of the rows are double planted with beans and corn together in the same row. That fact represents a fundamental philosophical decision I made at the beginning of this project. Every bit of advice I could find in print, or from an agricultural expert in Raleigh, said not to double plant beans in with corn. Every single old-timer I’ve talked with has offered unprovoked, “You know, you can plant them beans right in along with your corn…” I have cast my lot with the wisdom of the old-timers.

With the inexplicable abundance of seed on planting day, I’d worried what would come up. Surely we’d gotten it wrong and would have absurdly sparse rows once the seeds germinated and plants broke through the surface. After planting I had to leave town for a little over a week and fretted the whole time about what I’d find when I got home. I returned to a field full of green.

I got a call from Mr. Snider midweek last week after he’d gone back over to run the cultivator through the field to knock the weeds down. I’d spent nearly a whole day chopping weeds with a hoe five days earlier. Again, his work with the tractor did in an hour or two what had taken me a day. Despite my faithless fear that we’d done something wrong when we planted, his assessment after cultivating was, “The Lord sure did give us a good stand…” I heard that again this morning from another friend who stopped by to see the farm. I just smiled in amazement, “Yes indeed. It’s a good stand!”

After eating a cake made of meal and oil, Elijah promised his generous host that her provisions would last until the rains came. About halfway through this writing, the heavens broke and rain fell.

I do not regret my decisions to cast my lot with old-timers and prayer.

I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice.

From “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” by Wendell Berry

Between the Rains

 April 2, 2011

For the first time ever I was able to reach into the soil at Healing Springs Acres. I had felt the surface of the soil, walked over dozens of acres of it, sat on it, driven over it, and stretched out to nap on it. I had watched my daughters tromp across the fields and through the woods in muddy rubber boots laughing in a place they thought would bore them. I’d done all of that but, I had never buried a hand inside the ground and felt the damp, cool grit from more than a foot deep packing itself under my fingernails until today.

As I finished the first draft of the first post for this blog early last week my phone rattled my leg, a signal I’ve come to associate more with good news than bad. The text message was empty except for a small reddish picture. Temporarily without transportation and unable to get down to the farm, about 30 miles south of where I currently live, I was completely dependent upon a neighbor to do the needed plowing after mowing the week before. There was only a window of about two days when the ground would be dry enough from last weekend’s rain to plow it before the rains came again for most of the rest of that week – and, the neighbor had plenty of his own work to do.

Though typing confident words about the farm’s incarnation of Jesus’ invitation to serve others, I was actually sinking into the worry that the rain would be perfectly timed to delay the plowing. I worried that the delay in the initial plowing would leave too little time for other work to be done in time to be ready for our mid to late May planting season. I worried that this year’s planting would be fatally thwarted for the year just about the same time I posted to the world a public notice of the decision to go ahead rather than wait a year. Sometimes I worry. Then, I got the welcome text. As the picture focused on the screen and comprehension dawned that I was seeing a plowed field, dust still hanging in the air visibly in the tiny square picture, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of my need to be in control. It could not have been timed any better. Thank you Percy.

When I served as president of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Foundation I sometimes enjoyed the illusion of control. I could order a wire transfer of funds, or the purchase or sale of investments and assume with relative assurance that it would happen within a predictable, sometimes precise, time frame. I could visit a predictable number of prospective clients a predictable number of times and expect a predictable number of them to become actual clients. Working between the rains isn’t like that. It’s like – well, it’s like walking in a plowed field.

Each syncopated stride in a clumpy plowed field is about as sure as the shifting fun house steps at the fair. The open ground gives and bends in its own rhythm even when it is relatively stable. Add in the sometimes camouflaged patches of ankle deep mud from the last rain and it can be a downright precarious act. I have walked in plowed fields before but I realized with each step, like regaining one’s sea legs after far too long ashore, how little of it I’ve ever really done and how little residue of the physical memory remains.

Given the option, I prefer to be in control. Left to my own introverted devices, I would rather do things for myself, by myself, rather than risk being let down by others. However, that’s not an option at Healing Springs Acres. I am nearly completely dependent on others for equipment, advice, resources, and labor. Of course, often what we see when we look at others, like the risk of being let down, is really what we see in ourselves whether we can articulate it as such or not. Oh, and when I say I’d rather not depend on others, of course, what I’m really saying is that I’d rather not depend on God. It is the original sin in another garden. I’d rather know enough, and be in control enough, not to be dependent on anything or any one. It is pure hubris and it doesn’t work.

When I speak of depending on God, I’m not saying that I expect any special divine meteorological treatment. I know full well that the rains fall on the wicked and the righteous all the same – so, I believe it’s probably also true for those of us on our way somewhere in between. What I am saying though is that the field got plowed and, that it clearly happened beyond my direct means to do it myself. As of yet, I have not known ahead of time from whence anything I’ve needed to make Healing Springs Acres happen would come. Yet, at every turn so far, what has been needed has been provided. Though I’m still not altogether sure about myself, I have decided to depend on God to leave enough space between the rains for the work to be done for something nourishing to grow.

Genesis and Redemption

March 21, 2011


Good clean fun!

Today we mowed a field just west of the little crossroads of Healing Springs, which is just west of the town of Denton, NC. Yes, I realize that doesn’t really sound like much on the surface, but it brought me to tears. We only mowed about 3 acres and we’ll plant less than that but, it was genesis and redemption all rolled into one.
For decades I’ve had a dream of owning a farm. Over the last couple of years that dream has grown more specifically into a desire and a calling to create a community farm to grow food and give it away through existing ministries which feed people or distribute food.

As is fairly typical, Pearl Jam was blaring from my CD player as I followed the tractor and mower:

Seek my part – devote myself.
My small self, like a book amongst the many on a shelf
Sometimes I know, sometimes I rise…

Cutting about 20 feet per pass

I wept as I turned into the field knowing that this was it. Sometimes I know, sometimes I rise. After years of thinking, praying, hoping, proclaiming, believing, recruiting, seeking, and planning (honestly, I’ve mostly stumbled with blind determination into more Providence than I even believe in), this was the first tangible existence of Healing Springs Acres. Genesis.
The plan is simple. This year I’ll start small and grow about an acre of produce; corn, green beans, okra, potatoes, squash and maybe some cantaloupe. A local biker ministry, His Laboring Few, serves a noon meal on weekdays in one location and is beginning another meal in a nearby location in the evenings. They will be the initial distribution partner for the food we grow and will, of course, lend a hand when the fields are ripe for harvest.


Most of you who will be reading this know that my personal sense of calling is to minister among a “hard living” population. By their own description, most of the members of His Laboring Few are former “’Outlaws,’ ‘Hells Angels,’ prisoners, prostitutes, pimps, pushers, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc.,” who “are now born-again Christians with a desire to share what Jesus has done for us, with ones who are where we used to be.” You know, the kind of folk Jesus hung out with and picked as his earliest followers. As their name implies, their numbers are not huge. However, as best I’ve been able to observe, they are a hard working bunch and I don’t think I could have found a better group to serve alongside of as work begins at Healing Springs Acres.

The Few, as they are sometimes called, also played a significant role in the decision to move forward now rather than waiting until next spring. I attend worship with them once a month or so and happened to go there yesterday. Entering worship I was still unthawed from a winter of tumultuous uncertainty about the availability of either of two different farms, my personal living arrangements, and the rate of progress of a new business venture. I’m about halfway through the personal transition from a well paying steady paycheck kind of job to self employment as a consultant with churches for capital campaigns, strategic visioning, and conflict resolution and, as a professional coach for not-for-profit leaders and fundraisers. I’m about where I thought I’d be by this point in my transition, which only means I’m not yet fully where I’d like to be.

The new office!

In February I learned that the farm would be available. However, I had not been in Denton over the winter to build the volunteer relationships I felt like I needed to make a go of things in the spring. After a month’s worth of a thoroughly intense and conflicted gut check I had decided to wait for next spring.By now I should know to expect things like this in church, but I usually don’t. After worship every single announcement was about how much food was needed for the noon meal already being served, not to mention the additional location they were going to open within weeks. I sat there silently warmed with amazement at how specifically each and every announcement had Healing Springs Acres written all over it.

All I could think was how much better off I am, even in my somewhat precarious personal situation, than all the folks whose best option for a nutritious meal more days than not is the one served by His Laboring Few – the one for which I am growing food. The message was clear, how dare I not go forward this spring. Sometimes I know, sometimes I rise

The last pass

There are others who’ve been instrumental in making all this happen now too. Without the skill, knowledge and equipment of Percy Snyder of Percy Snyder Farms in Denton, and Bill Wallace, a local produce farmer in Denton, I wouldn’t be able to pull off any of this. Another significant encourager is a high School friend Jon Rigsbee, an agronomist and owner of GrowingGreen, a lawn care company in Kernersville, NC. Jon sees the opportunity to teach his children about where food comes from and how to help others, so he’s offered all sorts of expertise, help, and encouragement. These folks will likely never know how much their encouraging support means as this good work begins. Of course, there’s the Skeen family who has made available a portion of their old home place as the home of Healing Springs Acres. That’s a whole ‘nother story which I’ll tell some other time. For now, I’ll just say Thank You again.My father’s father was a sharecropper. He supported his family by living on and working on other people’s farms for a fractional share of the year’s crop. My dad has said many times that his father probably paid for at least two very nice farms over the years. He just didn’t happen to own either one of them. This is in my blood you might say – even if not in my immediate experience for not having grown up on the farms my family paid for.The farm at Healing Springs Acres is already paid for. My efforts, and the efforts of those who join me, will still go to the benefit of others. The Skeen family has made available a piece of ground on which I can honor my family’s history, they can honor their own family’s history, and, most importantly, we can all respond to the invitation to find Jesus in service to the least of these among us – who, of course, really aren’t the least of us at all in Jesus’ eyes.

Redemption – Praise be to God – sweet redemption.