By Jacob Snowden
Director of Christian Education
First Central Presbyterian Church
The seeds of something new in religious education are beginning to take root in the Garden State. The “Farminary” is a budding 21-acre farm connected with Princeton Theological Seminary. Why might a seminary venture out to buy a farm? One person is uniquely and eloquently prepared to answer that question.
Nate Sully, the Farminary director, preaches atop a five-gallon bucket pulpit, clad in a neck-tie and galoshes. Nate draws attention to a compost pile set just aside from a garden patch sprouting with peppers, okra, and cherub tomatoes. “This is the stuff from which sermons should be cultivated,” Nate begins. “The stench and look of death cover the pile, but if you were to roll away the top layer, you would see new life teeming throughout the mound. Mill worms, centipedes, and microorganisms are busy turning death into new life; this is surely God’s handiwork, amen?”
The members of Nate’s sunlit sanctuary are 40 Farminary visitors who have just arrived for Princeton’s second annual Just Food Conference. Gathered from Boston, Georgia, North Carolina, and First Central Presbyterian Church in Abilene, the congregation lets out a quiet but contented “Amen.” Nate continues describing the work and goals of Princeton’s new educational endeavor. “We are not trying to turn out as much produce here as possible. Our goal is still cultivating ministers. We just happen to think that the characteristics that produce a good farmer also happen to produce good ministers—patience, attention, disappointment, creativity, and hard work.”
How Princeton came to hold a farm is, in Nate’s words, “enough to make a Mennonite cry ‘Providence!’” Seeking to diversify its holdings, Princeton bought the land, formerly used as a sod farm. When the land was purchased in 2010, students were persistently asking about sustainability, local and organic food in the refectory, ecology, and fair labor practices. Enter Nate and his bosses to pitch their idea. By providence or perseverance, their pitch seemed to answer the several questions that students had been asking. The seed of the Farminary was sown.
The Just Food conference is not a bring-your-own-spade event. In most ways it is standard, professional conference. Most time was spent in the conference rooms of Princeton Seminary’s library. Discussion and note-taking outweighed planting and pruning by a long shot. However, food played just as large a role in the discussion as faith. The benefits of church gardens, the consequences of food deserts, and the connection to a globalized economy, where workers and food products come from around the world, were all hot topics.
What did I take away from my time at the conference? What one eats is complex. In a single bite of a hamburger you may be eating lettuce harvested by undocumented, underpaid migrant workers. You might be eating climate change as massive machines harvest grain for the bun. You might eat cutting edge science in a genetically modified tomato. You might eat new small business ventures in an artisan pickle. You might eat deforestation from cheap Brazilian beef. These things are why we must ask grace for our food. And with grace, these food complexities can be transformed into hospitality, health, and a recognition of what is holy and good. To ask for a blessing for one’s food is a serious business!