Rooted Transformation on a Small Farm

A pastor-farmer compares old ways and new
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I am skeptical about sharing best practices when it comes to spiritual renewal or church innovation. For so long we have pursued the bottom lines of butts in pews and bucks in plates that we have learned to function consumeristically and in ways that serve the human economy but not the ecology of God’s realm of interconnection. Wealth, efficiency, and production have been our goals rather than joining with the God of creation who has already shown us what is good. Radical renewal means tearing up the barriers to the gifts of the Creator and joining with the creator in sharing the abundance of life.

Plastic landscape fabric, wood mulch, and poultry manure

Using woven plastic landscape fabric for weed control has been a common best practice in organic perennial crop production. It is excellent at keeping weeds from choking out vines, trees, berry bushes, asparagus, and rhubarb. It also has disadvantages. Namely, in drought conditions the plastic heats the soil and keeps water from getting down to the roots of the plants. Besides impeding water, it disrupts the natural microbiome of the soil, depleting it of its capacity to make nutrients available to plant roots through networks of fungi, bacteria and invertebrates. Also, in our case, the woven plastic landscape fabric is choking our currant bushes that have grown too large for the hole in the fabric. To respond to these problems, we are choosing to tear all the plastic fabric out of the orchards and vineyards at Good Courage Farm. This causes another ecological problem in that the torn up fabric, most of which cannot be reused, ends up in the landfill. After the plastic is removed, the work of dressing each plant with composted poultry manure and a deep bed of woodchip mulch under the dripline of the plants, trees, and vines begins.

Removing old plastic makes way for new life

Hauling over 1000 pounds of old plastic landscape fabric to the landfill

We no longer think of plastic landscape fabric as weed control as a “best practice” at Good Courage Farm. Many hours and hard manual work have gone into its removal and subsequent replacement with poultry manure and natural mulch. It is a hard transition from a seemingly tried and true method that meets organic standards to a method that has the capacity to restore the soil, but requires many hours of cutting, tearing, digging, loading, and unloading. It does not feel good to deliver thousands of pounds of the worn out old fabric to the landfill. But we can already see the difference in the new rows that have been planted without the fabric and in the rows that have had the fabric removed there is renewal through water, nutrients, and microbe and fungus rich mulch. The plants are already greener and more full of life! 

The cost of tearing up the plastic is small compared to letting the plants, bushes, vines, trees die and letting the soil degrade. Also, the chance to stir the soil and give the trees some manure gives us and our volunteers a chance to live out the parable of the vine grower and bear witness to the abundance of God’s good gifts in creation even as they are made manifest by the decomposition of manure and wood chips! Removal of the plastic has allowed for greater ecological and sustainable practices to emerge such as chickens providing weed and pest control among the asparagus beds while providing a steady and direct application of poultry manure!

Renewal is more than best practices

A view from the bottom of the Silo Chapel at Good Courage Farm

Spiritual renewal is much like this. Sometimes the old “best” practices, though tried and tested, no longer make sense and aren’t life-giving in today’s world. The transitions to what comes next require an honest assessment that what used to work is no longer working. More difficult than the assessment is the hard work of transition—of taking away the worn out fabric and replacing it with a practice that seems new, but has always been part of the natural ecosystem. In our evolving practice on the farm we are going deep to the root of things not only in the fields but also in our silo chapel, in our pie and pizza baking and sharing, in our work together, in our hospitality, in the sharing of our produce, in our songs around the campfire, in our blessing of neighboring farms and farmers, and most of all in our spending time at the roots of creation, God’s first word and revelation.

Regeneration begins at the roots

I am convinced that the renewal that is coming into being consists of simple elements like wood chip mulch and poultry manure, fruit and flour, song and prayer, observation and action, stories and food, water and word, bread and wine. The ecclesiological crisis that the church is facing with its tempests fueled by an atmosphere saturated with white nationalism and in other places made arid with a spiritual drought of complacency are not unlike the ecological crises that food producers and farmers are facing. Renewal will depend upon our capacity to go to the root of things and to the Ground of All Being. Reliance on the latest best practice will not be enough. Regeneration starts at the roots and is by its very nature radical. Like plastic landscape fabric, best practices are too often superficial and can impede the absorption of that which transforms and gives true life and vitality.

Joy in the Regeneration

My own life bears witness to a recent spiritual regeneration, as I left a congregational call of 12 years to follow God’s call to become a farmer pastor. My new life’s work is rich and full of meaning as I labor alongside other members of the “farmily.” Though there is a huge learning curve, each day presents moments of co-creating and co-laboring in community with creatures of the human and non-human varieties and our Creator. Strangely and unexpectedly, there comes joy in making the transition from chasing after best practices to going to the root. And this joy can be seen in the greening of the fruit trees and the buzzing insects in the pollinator strip. It is also found on the faces of those who have embodied the renewal of fields and found rootedness in Community, Christ, and Creation. 

Photos courtesy of the author.

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Christian Muellerleile

Christian Muellerleile

Christian Muellerleile is a Farmer Pastor who serves as Food Faith + Farm Manager at Good Courage Farm, an emerging agrarian ministry near Huchinson, MN. He also works alongside his friends at Prairie Drifter Farm CSA, Jomas Hill Vineyard, and enjoys helping with longer term pulpit supply in the Crow River Conference of the SWMN Synod, ELCA.

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