November 12, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


Faith of Our Farmers 

Buoyed by their customers, some small farmers are creating a quiet revolution. And you might be surprised by the divine philosophies that drive them.

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My own farming career ended when I stabbed myself with a pitchfork trying to turn my compost pile. I decided then and there to leave it to the professionals. Not everyone is cut out to farm, so mostly it's left to big corporations.

But don't count out the little guy. Small farms and the customers who buy their wares have conspired, in the last few years, to create a quiet revolution.
About three-quarters of all farms in Virginia, or 36,000 of them, are smaller than 180 acres, according to the Department of Agriculture. The popularity of farmers' markets continues to grow. And the locavore movement — which encourages consumption of food grown close to home — has had a banner year.

These small farms may not dislodge industrial agribusiness from its dominant position in the marketplace, but their efforts manage nonetheless to chip away at its foundations.

I've noticed a curious thing, however. Among the farmers and dedicated customers at the local farmers' markets are two diametrically opposed points of view — the radical left and the radical right — standing cheek to jowl over the baby bok choi and nodding in complete assent. They differ on just about everything. But when it comes to food, both groups have identical ideas about how to raise animals and care for the earth.

Elliot Alexander is tall and projects confidence, with the kind of milk-fed, blue-eyed good looks you usually see on the high-school baseball team, instead of working on a farm south of Richmond on a school day.

Past the chickens pecking and clucking on the other side of the drive to his house, he demonstrates how he milks cows with names like Apple and Sunshine every morning and evening. He and his brother are the reason his father, Tim, left a career in commercial construction to start Avery's Branch Farms — a business they knew little about.

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“Really,” says Elliot's mother, Joy Alexander, “our boys are the ones who've been farming longer than we have.” Elliot and his brother, Oliver, started with chickens and began a small egg business. As the boys' enthusiasm grew, Tim and Joy decided to begin farming full time in order to prepare their sons for agricultural careers and to leave behind a well-established farm for them to take over one day.
Originally from North Carolina, the Alexanders bought Avery's Branch in Amelia County, and now, just over a year later, their 23-acre farm is producing pork, chicken and eggs. They've established a raw milk cow-share program — in which customers buy shares of a cow in exchange for the milk produced.

It's difficult not to be inspired by the enthusiasm of the growers at local farmers' markets. But a lot of the people on the other side of the counter started farming with no more experience than I have. For many of them, the decision to farm is rooted in deeply held spiritual convictions. The actual experience came after they bought the farm.

At every farmer's market, you'll find people who firmly believe that plants and animals should be grown in a way more familiar to our grandparents than our children. Farms with a variety of pastured animals and a multiplicity of rotating crops became scarce during the last 50 years, after the introduction of artificial fertilizer and corporate farming, which were designed to grow produce and animals faster and cheaper.

Critics argue that this kind of food production is unhealthy for people, inhumane to animals and dangerous to the environment.

One enthusiastic customer at the South of the James Farmer's Market is Ann Reavey, a mother of two children at the Waldorf School, and a member of both a consumer-producer cooperative and the Alexanders' cow-share program.

“I think that food is more than just what fuels our bodies,” she says. “It's an expression of how we interact with the world around us. Although for me that doesn't come out of a Christian background — for others it may. I don't feel any conflict with that point of view. Ultimately, we come out at the same place.”

“I've tried living, eating and buying other ways,” she continues. “It just doesn't seem to work on a micro- or macrocosm level. It doesn't work for the community and it doesn't feed the world. I think, when I buy food produced this way, my family is allowing another family to live a life that also sustains the earth we live on.”

Joel Salatin, founder of Polyface Farms, and star of Michael Pollan's bestseller, “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” is the undisputed leader of the movement he calls “better than organic.” The Augusta County resident is a fundamentalist Christian who doesn't believe in evolution, abortion or a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible. What he does believe in is stewardship.

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It's a word you hear a lot when you talk to Christian farmers. Joy Alexander says that “all the things we're given stewardship over — our cows, our pigs that are headed to be processed — we need to care for these things in a way that's pleasing to God.”

 Down the road from the Alexander family and past a big sign that says “Genesis 1:1,” Brenda Lawler of Faith Farms sits on the front porch of her farm house. She and her husband, Paul, “spent a whole year talking to people about how to do it the right way,” she says. “We took classes and we talked; we got out and asked questions.”

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On a warm, sun-blasted day in late summer, wearing flip-flops and an above-the-knee khaki skirt, with her long, brown hair tied loosely back, Lawler doesn't look like a typical Virginia farmer. She doesn't sound like one either. She speaks in a distinct New Jersey accent. She and her husband originally ran an automotive business in that state and wound up in Virginia by way of the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

“It had just gotten too crowded there [in Kill Devil Hills],” she says. “We had to get out.” They bought their 95-acre farm in 2004 and began farming a year later. Originally, they'd intended it to be a Christian retreat for troubled teens.

“Groups would come out and spend time here and learn about farming,” Paul Lawler says. “We could talk to them about the Lord. Out here, there's less distractions.” Brenda adds, “We saw such a demand for kids needing something to do. We've had youth groups down here, but not nearly as much as we wanted.”

That's because the farm proved to be a lot more work than the novice farmers had anticipated. It's a large, rambling place with chickens in the front huddling in the shade of the cedar trees, cows in the distance, and pigs off somewhere out of sight, rooting through the undergrowth. A big, brand-new hay baler sits off to the side, and instead of remodeling the kitchen in the old farmhouse, the money went to equipment and a new herd of cows.

The Lawlers aren't able to hire a full-time helper yet, so along with their daughter Jessica's help, they do all the work themselves. At the same time, the Lawlers have no debt, and despite being tired from the long, chore-filled days, Brenda Lawler says: “We think over the last two years, it's miraculous where we're at. It's from God's blessing; the Lord uses us in a lot of ways.

“We're the new generation of farmers.”
Like Salatin, the Lawlers believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and like him, they use the farming methods he advocates — farming methods that have been used for centuries and forgotten after the arrival of modern industrial agriculture. Salatin found a way to reinvent them for the 21st century.

Out in the fields at Polyface, the Salatin family's farm in Swoope — a town about a two-hour's drive northwest of Richmond, near Staunton — the chickens converge on me, pecking at my pants a little more forcefully than I would like. Salatin's son Daniel and I talk theology. He says his father's method of farming is “a way to do things that is important [not only] to our Christian faith but also for the health of the earth we have. I think that's really where we agree with everyone.”

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“We believe that God created animals for a purpose and for a design,” he continues. “They didn't evolve out of millions of protoplasm that suddenly just came to together and luckily lived. [Animals were] designed for a purpose on this earth — to accomplish goals, to perform tasks and to live out a fulfilled life.”

This means that Joel Salatin carefully observes how nature works to devise his farming methods. He noticed that, unfettered by human interference, large herbivores would sweep across meadows, clearing the long grass, and that they, in turn, were followed by birds, who pecked and scratched the manure into the earth, fertilizing it for the next crop of grass to grow.

Salatin mimics this by carefully managing where and when his cattle graze. First, he encloses a section of pasture with a portable electric fence and allows his cows to graze until that section is cleared. The cattle are then moved to another part of the pasture, and chickens are brought in to hunt for bugs and worms and, incidentally, to work that cow manure into the ground. In this way, artificial fertilizers are rendered unnecessary, and feed costs sink to almost nothing.

More importantly, the land under Salatin's care is left in better shape than when his father first began farming here more than 40 years ago. Unlike a lot of the other new farmers who use his methods as a blueprint, Salatin is a second-generation farmer. Rotational grazing, the cornerstone of his farming technique, is “a lightweight, gentle footprint,” he says, that employs “a portable, dynamic infrastructure” his father initially envisioned and his son took to its logical conclusion. “He set that ball rolling, and I simply tweaked it and refined it.”

Salatin, though, is not simply a Christian farmer who takes the management of the environment seriously from deeply held, religious convictions. He's also a visionary, a proselytizer who, like missionaries everywhere, wants to convert you. The difference is, while a devotion to the tenets of Christianity provides its foundation, the vision he preaches is specifically related to food and how we take care of the animals we eat.

This vision is at odds with many mainstream fundamentalists.

Salatin doesn't understand why other Christians can't see the implications of their own faith. His is a self-proclaimed, Eastern-inflected Christianity, stripped away of the compartmentalization, or what he calls the Westernization of religion, and infused instead with a more holistic perspective.

It sounds a lot like the deism of Thomas Jefferson, who lived on another farm about an hour east of here. Although Salatin says he believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, he seems to be taken with the more metaphorical aspects of its language and derives much of his farming philosophy from the tropes of nature that infuse both the Old and the New Testaments.

Salatin says to “look at how many references there are to the care of animals” in the Bible. “Nature is metaphorically used everywhere on par with humanity,” and these metaphors emphasize both our place in the world and how we're to conduct our lives day to day. “Unfortunately,” he says, “much of the Western institutional church [teaches that] if you recite the catechism or go through this liturgy on Sunday, you can treat your animals and your spouse and your co-workers like hell the rest of the week.”

His son Daniel doesn't understand why a group of “wonderful people with heart for God” at the church his family attends would buy the cheapest available pork or order Kentucky Fried Chicken for a church barbecue. “We look at [the Bible] as an inclusive guidebook,” he says, “for the way we raise our kids, the way we interact with society, to the way we're going to spend eternity and the way we eat. It's very few people that make that connection in the fundamentalist Christian realm.”

In explaining the dramatic diversity of his customers, Salatin points to the home schooling movement. He doesn't like to mince words: He calls the left-leaning crowd “Earth Muffins” or “Mother Earth Tree Huggers.” Nonetheless, respect lurks, despite his labels, when he explains how the two perspectives converge.

“The Earth Muffins don't want to raise a bunch of kids that sell out to Wall Street,” he says, “and the very conservative Christian community doesn't want to raise a bunch of kids that sell out to consumerism.” Both goals are ultimately the same, he says:  “Neither one of them want their kids to be peer-dependent. They want them to have core values.”

Salatin thinks the progressive home-schoolers began to think about the implications of the food we eat before the fundamentalist group did. But once this group opted out of the traditional school system, Salatin says, “it was so refreshing and soul-satisfying that [the fundamentalist Christians] began asking, ‘What else should we begin to opt out [of]?’” Salatin believes that this “led the home-schoolers out of conventional, Western institutional boxes, and they discovered a living, spontaneous soul.”

“Once you begin looking for soul,” he says, “you begin realizing that industrial food takes the spirit out of food. It reduces biology to just [the] mechanistic. Industrial food doesn't ask if the pig is expressing its natural pigness; it only asks how can we … grow it faster, bigger, fatter.”

The home-schooling movement, which emphasizes a kind of individualized instruction designed to discover and to enhance the gifts and talents of each of the family's children, will, according to Salatin, attract the kind of people who will also ponder the individual pig and its “natural pigness.”

The Salatin family has had a difficult time finding the kind of congregation that shares its view of Christianity. But their embrace of ideas usually associated with Eastern religions has forged a bond across seemingly impermeable ideological barriers to include anyone who thinks that the dirt beneath our feet and the animals that are under our care deserve a responsible, thoughtful guardian.

Back at Faith Farms near Richmond, Brenda, Paul, and their daughter Jessica drink iced tea and watch Jessica's 2-year-old son, Tristan, playing on the porch. It's the middle of the day — prime time for work on a farm — and as a couple of clouds drift slowly across the blue sky, it's hard to imagine doing anything else.

“I feel lazy today,” Jessica says. “I just don't know why.”

“Oh, honey,” her mother replies, “you've worked so hard all morning.”

Just like the other small farmers trying to change the world. S

Brandon Fox has been a restaurant critic and food writer for Style Weekly since 2005. The University of Virginia graduate is the author of an award-winning Richmond food blog, “Brandon Eats,” at




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