Preached by Hannah at Hyattsville Mennonite Church, April 18 2021.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” ~ Matthew 13:1-9
One of the things that I appreciate most about the bible is its agrarian content. Since becoming a farmer, I’ve delighted in the simplicity and truth of the very real, grounded ecological and farming knowledge that the peoples of the Bible were conversant in. And I’ve heard a lot of sermons, based on agrarian scripture passages, that jump straight to metaphor… which I say is a shame. The people in the Bible were talking about real life!
One of the first things I was told at my first farm job, and which I now tell beginning farmers who I train is “seeds want to grow!” or alternately, “plants want to live!” That’s what I think of when I hear the Parable of the Sower. Jesus is saying what everybody knew: given the right conditions, seeds will grow and plants will thrive. The earth wants to give abundantly. The question is the conditions.
When I tell people “plants want to grow!” I’m mostly telling them that they don’t need to be gentle. The roots just need contact with the soil, there needs to be moisture and sunlight, and the plant will take it from there. When a plant doesn’t thrive, it’s not the fault of the plant–it’s some external condition. It might be a pest or a disease, or it might be poor soil or a lack of moisture or too much heat or cold.
A farmer can do something about some of these external factors. There are ways we can prevent some pests from accessing the plants, for example–deer fences, bird netting, row cover. We can irrigate if we have water access, and we can cover things up on frosty nights.
Palestinian peasants in Jesus’ day had control over some factors but not others.
They lived under Roman occupation. You wouldn’t necessarily think that would mean much to a peasant who lived close to the land. Indeed, before Roman occupation, Palestine, like everywhere else, had a self-sufficient local food system. But, by levying taxes on farmers in the form of grain to feed imperial cities, Rome changed the food landscape and the ecology. The economy turned to an extractive money economy, based on debt, and peasants were losing land to foreclosure by larger landowners while more and more of the land was being monocropped in grain.
I live in the midwestern United States and this story is eerily familiar. Farms have been consolidating throughout the 20th century, but especially during the 80s farm crisis and now, during the last few years in the dairy industry. The landscape here is an incessant monocrop of corn and soybeans–99% of Iowa land has been “developed” by humans, the most of any state in the nation. And 3 days without trucks coming in from elsewhere would leave our state without food in the grocery stores. But we don’t have the Roman empire to blame for this injustice and fragility. Instead we have corporate capitalism.
What I hear Jesus saying in the parable of the sower is a reminder that seeds want to grow; that plants know what to do, and will do their best in whichever conditions they are given. The birds might eat them or the weeds might choke them, which is simply and example of the birds and weeds doing their best. Or the soil might be too rocky and compacted, so that the roots can’t support a thriving plant. As a farmer I think, “don’t plant in a compacted spot!” And I think Jesus’ listeners knew that too, but also knew that the Roman extraction economy was forcing them to expand production into marginal land. But, we all know, seeds that fall on good soil will give of themselves, abundantly.
Seeds that fall on good soil don’t care about empire. They thrive despite empire. In fact, the best way to remediate marginal soil is to plant seeds on it, to let plants do what they know how to do, collecting carbon from the air, turning it into sugars, cultivating relationships with microbes in the soil, sharing sugars in exchange for nutrients. If plants are given the opportunity to try to grow, over the course of years they will build better soil and the community of life around them will grow more diverse.
Plants are the opposite of empire. They follow an entirely different logic. Life is about reciprocity, and empire is about extraction. Jesus, throughout his parables, reminds his listeners of the logic of creation, the logic of life, as an alternative to the logic of empire.
And that brings me to the present day. Our agriculture and food system is absolutely overwhelmed by the logic of corporate capitalism. Cheapness, mechanization, hierarchy, and extraction for profit are the name of the game, and these values have decimated rural economies and communities and have done even worse, irreversible damage to the soil and the biodiversity on which our lives depend. And now, as the climate careens into chaos, science adds its voice to our moral intuition and says that we must radically transform the way we live as humans on the earth.
So, given that we’re embedded in the Empire of capitalism, what steps can we take to transform the way we live together on the earth, and to embody the logic of life?
We won’t find the answers in the time I have left today, but I will share what my farm has been working on, trying to build systems with integrity.
We are Humble Hands Harvest, a farm that I started 8 years ago on rented land. Now we operate as a 2-member worker owned cooperative on land that we own. My co-farmer is Emily, and we have an employee starting her second year who is also named Emily. We raise two acres of organic vegetables for direct-market sale, as well as pastured pigs and grass-fed sheep, and we’ve been faithfully planting fruit and nut trees for the four years that we’ve been on this land. Our first two apple fruits matured last year, but a raccoon got them before we did!
Our farm is unique in that we’re both young women from non-farming backgrounds, and we didn’t inherit the land that we’re on. The story of our land access is a story of creativity and generosity and community, and I don’t have time to share it now but you can find it on our website! Another thing that makes us unique is that we’re full-time farmers, which runs against the pattern of farmers relying on off-farm jobs for their health insurance and living expenses.
We’ve really thrived in the worker-owned cooperative structure, because it allows us to lead with our values of life and diversity, and dignity of work. We’ve also asked our community, friends, and family for help over the years with capital expenses, such as digging a well and now, building a house for us farmers to live in. So many people have seen our vision and our need and have been generous with us, but at the same time, our going against the grain of capitalist expectations has confused and frustrated others.
“Who do they think they are?” “That’s just the way farming is–you have to get an off-farm job.” The picture of two young women publicly thumbing their nose at capitalism and succeeding in a different way–a way embedded in community; attentive to the soil’s needs first, rather than profit; caring principally for our own bodies and spirits so that we can feed our community for the long haul–that picture honestly angers people who have been brainwashed by the way things are. We have been accused of “cheating” the system, when what we’re trying to do is work outside of it to craft a different one.
What we’ve done–what we are doing–is to work on the deeper conditions that will allow seeds to grow and will encourage plants, animals, and humans to express their best selves. The extent to which our economic system and its extractive logic diminishes those possibilities is the true depth of our work at Humble Hands Harvest.
I don’t want to be too hopeful about our collective future–the climate is changing, biodiversity has shrunk such that it’ll take millions of years to return to what it was 10 years ago. We are in a dire situation as a planetary community. But. We know what the problem is. And the way out of the logic of Empire is to conceive of and embody a different one. An ethos of reciprocity, of care, of life.
Seeds are meant to grow, and we are all meant to thrive.