“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 weather.com 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.

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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…

Abundance!

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.

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