Agriculture

Nuts and Bolts

On a trip to Mali, Jock Brandis was asked by women he met in rural villages to send them a simple, cost-effective nut-sheller to aid their ground-nut business. It turned out that the “holy grail of sustainable agriculture” didn’t exist, so he built one. The Universal Nut Sheller costs $28 to make and has raised village incomes by an estimated 20 percent. Brandis’ organization, the Full Belly Project, has placed machines in 17 countries, created similar machines for other nuts, and trains folks to locally manufacture and distribute them.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2009
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Do the Math

Human beings have been burning fossil fuels like they’re going out of style. And they definitely are: We are running out of accessible oil, and we must dramatically cut back on our fossil fuel use to prevent the greenhouse effect from wreaking extreme ecological, human, and economic havoc.

Biofuels—a better term is agrofuels—are often presented as the silver bullet that will enable us to drive our SUVs merrily into the future. Any burnable plant matter can be an agrofuel, but ethanol (fermented from corn, sugar cane, or other food crops) is most common today; biodiesel, derived from soy, palm, or other vegetable oil, is also coming into use.

In theory, agrofuels seem like a great idea. Plants are a renewable resource, and, while burning agrofuels creates the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the feedstock plants absorb an equivalent amount of CO 2 as they grow.

So what’s not to love? That’s certainly the attitude of the U.S. government, which offers a 51-cent credit to fuel companies for every gallon of ethanol they blend with gasoline (U.S. ethanol consumption topped 5 billion gallons in 2006 and is climbing). The European Union aims to replace 10 percent of its vehicle fuel with agrofuel by 2020.

But the rosy picture collapses completely when you do the math. A “life cycle analysis” of our current system of corn ethanol production (including growing crops, distilling fuel, transporting inputs and outputs long distances, and making farm machinery) shows that the whole process burns nearly as much fuel energy as it makes. In many estimates, it burns more than it makes.

This is not a fuel source—it’s a massive exercise in greenwashing theater, a cycle that burns extra oil and adds to global warming. The force behind it is not environmentalism, but the political power of Big Corn.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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A Shelter for the Soul

El Centro Episcopal is located in Sampson County, a sparsely populated region of southeast North Carolina where farming is still the dominant industry. This small community organization, run by Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFM), serves the “invisible” laborers who earn the lowest annual income of all U.S. workers—workers who hand-harvest 85 percent of the produce we eat. Accessible only by a rural road, the facility provides services to more than 6,000 migrant and year-round farm workers each year. Seventeen acres of cotton, bell pepper, soybean, and strawberry fields surround a health clinic, a Head Start day-care facility, a community services building, and a church, La Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia.

It’s not a place you’d expect to find innovative design, but two unique building projects are underway: a community garden and a flea market. With the help of Design Corps, a Raleigh-based architecture organization whose stated mission is “creating positive change in communities through design,” EFM has developed a 20-year plan to respond to the immediate and future needs of the people it serves. The garden will offer workers extra food while the flea market will help bring in extra income. Using research from Wake Forest University about how to address “food insecurity” within the migrant farm worker population, Design Corps’ partnership with EFM provides a design solution to an economic and social justice issue.

Architecture and design experts have traditionally served the needs and interests of those able to foot expensive bills. Bryan Bell, executive director of Design Corps, recalls trying to talk with other architecture professionals about individual design for low-income families during the era of multi-family complexes in urban centers. “They thought I was serving lobster and caviar at a food bank. They just didn’t understand what designers could do to help.”

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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News Bites

  • Poor Diet. In April, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski encouraged all Oregonians to take the "Food Stamp Challenge" by living on an average food stamp budget of $21 per person per week. "Budgeting just $1 a meal each day for food, and trying to make that food nutritious, is a difficult task," said Kulongoski.

  • Bad Seed. El Salvador's Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gómez spoke out in April against a proposal encouraged by the Bush administration that El Salvador launch an ethanol-producing project using sugar cane and yellow corn. Gomez fears the project will increase poverty and environmental degradation. "Its negative impact on the family economy will be greater than the benefits that it could bring about," said Gomez.

  • Yen for Peace. Japan's Catholic bishops are resisting efforts by the Bush and Abe administrations to remove the "peace clause" from the Japanese constitution. Article 9, which was added in 1946, asserts that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation."

  • Green Cross. Ugandan church leaders are protesting a government plan to sell the Mabira Forest, a large nature preserve, to a sugar company that intends to level it for sugar cane production. "In the book of Genesis," said Rev. Frank Tukwasibwe, "God calls on us to protect our environment. Let us pray for the protection of Mabira Forest."

  • Power Grrrls. The media's sexualization of girls has consequences that "are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls' healthy development," said Dr. Eileen Zurbriggen, chair of the American Psychological Association's task force on the sexualization of girls. APA's report found that sexualized imaging of girls impairs their ability to think and contributes to poor body image, low self-esteem, and depression.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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Planting Justice for Farmers

From the barley fields of ancient Israel to the parables of Jesus, God's concern for the livelihoods of and challenges experienced by farmers is evident. Today, the almost 3 billion people in farming families around the world are faced with an often-devastating economic landscape; half of the world's hungry people are smallholder farmers. Many farmers in the U.S. are struggling as well.

A big part of the problem for farmers in the global South is that trade agreements have cut poor countries' ability to protect their farmers with tariffs and other measures. These agreements have also helped foster a model in which monoculture crops are produced by a petroleum- and pesticide-intensive process, then shipped long distances. This cuts the market price of crops while racking up high costs to biodiversity, to the environment, to local food security, and to communities.

While a few large farms in the global South may benefit from adopting the export-driven model, most small farmers overseas are often unable to compete; many are forced to join the ranks of the urban poor. Farmers in the U.S. also feel a financial squeeze, as they are forced to adopt the agribusiness model in order to produce at the market price, and therefore must buy pesticide-resistant or other (often genetically modified) seeds and raw materials at "company store" prices.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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A Theology of Place

Something is bound to go terribly wrong when so many Christians see the planet as an unimportant holding place where we await salvation; or when preachers and teachers of the faith place too much emphasis on humanity's privileged status without also explaining our responsibilities to tend the garden; or when Christians see God as transcendent but not immanently present in creation. The result, according to religious studies professor Daniel Deffenbaugh, is twofold: an ecological crisis and an "evident exodus" of ecologically sensitive individuals from churches across the country.

Over the last 30 years, Christian leaders and theologians have attempted to correct these imbalances and highlight the environmental wisdom of the scriptures, seeing the problem primarily as a matter of emphasis: the foundation for a strong environmental stewardship ethic is latent in the tradition, waiting to be articulated and embraced.

Deffenbaugh disagrees. In Learning the Language of the Fields, he urges that instead we need a "dramatic revision" of Christian theology that requires revisiting the myths of our tradition and integrating wisdom from the various and rich cultures of those Native Americans, "children of the earth," whose myths are derived from the land in which we now live.

Examining prominent myths of groups such as the Zuni, Plains, Cherokee, and others, Deffenbaugh identifies several themes: a sense of cosmic mystery; the notion that a person's identity is intimately connected with the place of which he or she is a part; and that through discipline, "one can approach and know the mysterious Other." These basic themes provide shape and structure to the lives of the Native groups. As they are frequently centered on agricultural practice, they give meaning to the seasonal rituals of planting, nurturing, and harvesting as well.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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Tilling Word and Land

Tilling Word and Land

What I have learned as a farmer I have learned also as a writer, and vice versa. I have farmed as a writer and written as a farmer. This is an experience that is resistant to any kind of simplification. I will go ahead and call it complexification. When I am called, as to my astonishment I sometimes am, a devotee of “simplicity” (since I live supposedly as a “simple farmer”), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York City in 1964 and came here to Kentucky. In New York, I lived as a passive consumer, supplying nearly all my needs by purchase, whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work (and pleasure) and am responsible besides for the care of the place.

My point is that when one passes from any abstract order, whether that of the consumer economy or John Crowe Ransom’s “Statement of Principles” or a brochure from the extension service, to the daily life and work of one’s own farm, one passes from a relative simplicity into a complexity that is irreducible except by disaster and ultimately is incomprehensible. It is the complexity of the life of a place uncompromisingly itself, which is at the same time the life of the world, but also the limitations of one’s knowledge, intelligence, character, and bodily strength. To do this, of course, is to accept the place as an influence.

My further point is that to do this, if one is a writer, is to accept the place and the farmer of it as a literary influence. One accepts the place, that is, not just as a circumstance, but as a part of the informing ambience of one’s mind and imagination. I don’t dare to claim that I know how this “works,” but I have no doubt at all that it is true. And I don’t mind attempting some speculations on what might be the results.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2005
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