River of Fear

A reflection on fear I wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence this past fall.
Hurricane Florence is working its way through the Carolinas right now. Although the winds have not been as bad as they could have been, the rainfall and storm surge are causing devastating flooding. Earlier this week, meteorologists predicted all that rain would hit central Virginia. On Monday I was preparing for 2 feet of rain. I dug extra drainage ditches, built more shelters for the critters, cleared debris from our small creek, drained the cisterns to make room for the rain, and stocked up on supplies. It wouldn’t have been enough, but it was all I could do. Fortunately for me, but not the Carolinas, the storm shifted south. Instead, we only got a few inches of rain. But as the storms’ southwesterly track became clear and my need to busily prepare eased, I realized how much fear I was carrying.
And not just about the storm, though the storm gave form to my fears. The stresses of farming are constant. This year I’m worried about too much rain, but last year it was drought. I worry about when and how much to plant. Will this variety work in my conditions? Is there enough fertility in my soil? Will the flea beetles decimate the arugula crop again? Should I just give up on squash and surrender to the squash bugs? Will my tomatoes get blight again? Will I have anything to sell at the market? Will anyone buy from me? How will I pay for all the expenses that add up and up in the early spring? Will I ever be able to pay myself?

And then there’s the livestock. Are they well? How can I afford all their feed? Am I feeding them the right thing? Am I moving them enough so they don’t destroy our woods? Will they escape? How do I keep them safe in the storm? I feel so much responsibility for their well-being.
The financial pressures are real. It takes so much money to run a farm and the margins are tiny. We are close to breaking even. Will we ever earn an income? Will Bones be able to retire? Can I really call myself a farmer or is this just a really expensive hobby?
And the time away from the family. I’m always working. Will the kids resent the farm and all it requires of me?
Meanwhile, my body suffers. I feel achier every day and stupid mistakes threaten me with injury. What if I got more seriously injured? Would this whole farming experiment be over?
Meanwhile, the world seems in chaos between hurricanes and wildfires, wars and conflict, increasingly visible racism, homophobia and xenophobia, the collapse of our political discourse, and the ever-worsening climate crisis.
The fear and anxiety are a river raging just below my surface. Lately, the river seems ready to breach its banks. The fear sits heavy in my chest, sometimes making it difficult to breathe. Some days I feel paralyzed. And yet, the goats remind me vociferously every morning that they need to be fed. And so I go about my work feeding, weeding, planting, mucking, harvesting. I carry the fear with me, but I can’t let it stop me. I can’t overstate how vital the relentlessness of farming work is to my soul. If I didn’t have to haul water to the pigs today, I might become trapped in the fear. But I do. So I pull on my boots, drag the hose to the buckets, and bring the pigs their water. Whether it is raining or snowing, blazing sun, or dim with clouds, whether I want to or not, I go. And I’ll wake up tomorrow and do it again.
It is a discipline for sure, and a prayer of a sort, in that all our work can be a prayer to God. My work is a prayer that I will eat well and feed my children well, a prayer for this land that I steward, a prayer for my community I feed with the vegetables and meat I produce, a prayer for the well-being of my animals, and prayer that I will faithfully fulfill God’s command to keep and till the earth. And in that prayer, God lifts my fear, ever so slightly. I do not succumb to the fear, my prayer, my work move me forward with God.

The Bi-Vocational Life

Folks often ask me how I balance being both a farmer and a pastor. Mostly I quip that farming is essential for my mental health. The truth is some days finding a balance between the two can be quite challenging. Throw in being a parent to two young kids and life can be downright exhausting!
As we began gathering for Dinner Church we only met once a month. Seems reasonable to expect that being away from the farm a couple of hours once a month would not prove difficult, but that would be wrong. One Dinner Church Sunday I was getting ready for worship, bread was baking in the oven, soup simmering on the stove, everything packed a ready to go, so I decided to slip out and check on something in the garden before I left. Walking past Mickey’s pen (our sow)I noticed a wet, squirming piglet next to her. Then I saw another! It took a minute to dawn on me that she was farrowing (farmer speak for pigs giving birth). Of all the days! I called Bones and the kids over to watch. While we looked on she had 7 little piglets.

Looking at my watch, I worried that she wouldn’t finish before we needed to leave for church. Not that she really needed us there to help, but the occasional piglet can end up in the wrong place and get crushed while mama pig is in the throes of delivery. So I called the friend we bought Mickey from and asked her to come. We drove off as piglet #8 was entering the world. As church began, my phone in my pocket was still buzzing from texts as each new piglet arrived. We came home from church to a quiet farm, mama pig nursing her 11 piglets and our friend had returned home. Satisfied that all was well, I laughed about how I might be the only pastor who gets ready for church by calling in a friend to take over pig midwifery so she can get to worship on time.

Another day was a bit more hectic. I sometimes help out when my friends are butchering poultry, so leading up to Thanksgiving I spent several days with them processing birds. The first day was the most miserable weather day of the year – high winds, driving sleet and rain, bitter cold. I had planned to get there just after dropping the kids off at school and feeding my animals, but school was delayed 2 hours. So instead, I headed out early to get my animals fed and watered before bundling the kids up for school. I arrived to help with turkeys but kept my phone close figuring it was likely school would get called early due to the rapidly deteriorating weather. I did get a call from the school, but it was a message that they were on lock-down due to a threat of gun violence at the high school. Freezing cold, worried about my kids, I continued eviscerating turkeys until I had to leave for an appointment in town to counsel someone. I changed pants and shoes to at least try to look presentable. After the appointment, I raced back to pick kids up from school. I had planned to return to help with the turkey processing when I got a call that our boar was on the main road near our house. I dropped the kids at the house and went back out driving up and down the road looking for him. No luck. Soon Bones arrived home and we set out walking in different directions to find him. Finally, I heard her coaxing him down the old logging road between our two properties. With him back safely (thankfully not having caused a car accident!) I had just enough time to shower and change into “city” clothes and head back to town to lead Eucharist/Vespers at church. As I walked out the door, Jake reminded me about some items he needed for a craft project at school and it had to be there the next day. So I led worship in town followed by a quick run into the craft store on my way home, where I crashed. A big day of playing mom/pastor/farmer!

Most days are not quite so crazy, but there are moments when ministry and farming collide in interesting, surprising, sometimes difficult, but often wonderful ways. Like talking with someone about faith and life and God while standing at the evisceration table processing chickens. Or having to ask the host for Dinner Church to please cover up the dead lamb in the back of his pick-up as people begin to arrive for church. Or talking to potential new church folks across my table at market when they find out I’m a pastor as well as a farmer. Or providing support to my fellow market vendors, because they call me pastor too, as they go through the same ups and downs of farming that I know so well. Or watching a parishioner’s farm when they go away. Or being able to feed people with really great food that I’ve grown myself and inviting them to the farm to share the peace and tranquility I find here.


When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. – Rumi

I’m not a big fan of winter, especially on the farm. Everything takes so much longer. Just getting out the door is an Olympic sport – base layer, mid-layer, hoodie, barn coat, hat, thick socks, lace up the boots, scrounge around for some gloves, but decide to go without them – they’ll only get wet anyway. I start with the goats, grabbing a big armful of hay. I toss it over their fence line to lure them away from the gate. Then fill their bucket with grain, unplug the fence, no sense in electrocuting myself, and then push the gate open against the weight of the goats. They’ve abandoned their hay in favor of the sweet grain. Stepping through the pen takes concentration and agility. One goat is under my legs, another is trying to rip the bucket out of my hands. The twins decided now is the best time to go head to head in another round of head butting. And the littlest one stands in their feed trough, vying for the best spot to scarf some feed. I start to pour when Caramel knocks the bucket from my hand, sending grain cascading over goat bodies. At least half makes it in the trough.

Next, I check their water. It is frozen, of course, so I grab a stick to break the ice. Their bucket fills from the rain cisterns on the house. The line is frozen at the moment, but the sun should hit it soon and restart its flow. In a few weeks, it will stop flowing as the temps refuse to rise above freezing. Then I’ll have to haul water in buckets from the house.

I start to leave the goats when the chickens come running across the lawn. They heard the sounds of the goats’ metal feed can and are hoping for a handout. I get a scoop of the goats’ grain and toss it onto the lawn. The chickens have their own feeder in their coop, but they seem to think the grain is sweeter on the goats’ side of the fence.

Next on the feed line is the hogs. I have to walk back to the barn for their feed. There I measure out the right amount for each set of pigs. They are separated into three groups at the moment. Mickey and the piglets, Wendell (our boar), and the market hogs. I distribute a bucket each to Wendell and Mickey and then fill their water buckets from the house. The buckets are heavy and awkward when filled with water. Some near-freezing water splashes on my legs and feet as I walk. My hands are already wet as I try to lift the buckets over the fence line, splashing more down my front. Mickey turns to the water immediately, drinking in deeply, before burying her snout again in the bucket of grain.

The market hogs are off in the woods, so rather than carry buckets of water, I fill a rain barrel on my tractor cart and haul it back there. The road is bumpy and uneven, so the water sloshes about. The animals know the hum of the tractor means food is coming. As I round the back of the cow pasture, Molly Weasley (our milk cow) comes running up the hill. Her water is still full, thank goodness, but I do have to reach in to break the ice. My hands, red and cracked now from cold, tremble a little as I stuff them back into my pockets. I need one hand to drive though, so I alternate warming them up against the warmth of my skin under my shirt. Molly looks at me eagerly expecting hay, I assure her I’ll be back with it soon. As I hop back on the tractor and make my way through the woods.

The market hogs are still sleeping soundly, I’m a little early this morning. As I approach, I can see them snuggled snout to tail in their pig “donut” – a nest made of leaves and straw. The sound of the tractor startles them and they shoot out from the nest in four different directions, squealing in alarm as they run. We do this every morning. A waft of steam rises from their nest. I’ve tried before to give them shelter, but they prefer the pig donut. I once found a previous group of pigs lying in their snug donut covered with several inches of snow. Finally, they realize it’s me and rush back to the fence line, snorting happily and hungrily as I toss in their grain. While they nose around in their food, I fill their water buckets from the rain barrel, once again getting splashed with frigid water.
Pigs fed, I drive back to the hay bales to fill the cart with hay for Molly. It feels good to do the work of forking hay into the cart, finally generating some heat to warm my body. With a full cart and a slightly warmed self, I drive back toward the house with Molly’s hay. She is waiting, not so patiently, where I left her on the fence line. I toss the hay over and give her a good scratch behind her ears. She’s too busy eating to pay me much mind, but I’ll stop back in later and give her a good brushing.

My final stop of the morning is to open the hoop house. It is always surprising how much warmer it feels in the hoop house, even without a heater. I’m a little late getting it open, so the sun hitting the plastic has already formed a condensation that “rains” on me as I walk through the structure. Everything outside is frozen, but in here, it looks like spring.
With all my chores done, I head back to the house for a warm cup of coffee. My toes are frozen, I can’t feel my fingers, I’m huffing a bit from trying to move quickly through the routine, and my stomach is rumbling from hunger. Having fed all the humans and animals in my care, I finally get to feed myself. There are plenty of things on my list to do today, the to-do list is never complete, but first, coffee and warmth.

I suppose this may seem like an odd reflection to have about joy. I can see how this might come across as misery to most. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite part of being a farmer and I am known to engage in the favorite pastime of farmers everywhere – complaining about the weather. Still, there is much joy to be found here. I find joy in caring for these creatures of mine. The goats, an endless source of entertainment in their antics and mischief, but also the affectionate way they push against me or press their faces against mine. The earthy-ness of the pigs with their soulful eyes and the warmth that emanates from their rotund bodies. The gentleness of our cow and the peace I feel standing beside her. The ache in my muscles and the bitter cold sting in my hands, reminders that I am alive and able to do the job that I love another morning. The sense of pride in my work, a job well done, a life well-lived. And finally, the coffee, warming me from the inside, made sweeter by the morning’s work.

Soul Prep

In one of the Facebook groups I follow related to market gardening, someone recently posted a question about soil prep, but with a wonderful typo, “How deep should I dig for soul prep?” In my experience, this is by far the better question.

My first garden was a 4×4 raised bed in our mostly shaded backyard in Atlanta. Bones had a book called Square Foot Gardening that I read cover to cover before embarking on my gardening journey. I planned my little garden out meticulously, on graph paper, hoping to cram as much into that tiny space as possible. A small corner of our yard got a decent amount of sun but had a large bush growing in it. Ever supportive of my projects, Bones spent a whole weekend digging out the deep roots of that bush to make way for my garden. We built up the bed, filled it with good soil, and laid out the square grid with string. A local community gardening project had their annual plant sale so we hitched up the trailer to my bike (we liked to bike around town in those days) and pedaled off to get our very first plants.

At the sale, I picked out 2 tomato plants, a pepper, an eggplant, some herbs, and some onions. I also grabbed several packets of seeds for green beans, carrots, and spinach. We nestled the plants into the trailer, trying to secure them for the bumpy ride, and then set off back home. The streets of Decatur can be quite a rough ride. Coming up a hill on a quiet side street I hit the edge of one of the infamous steel plates used to cover potholes and unfinished construction on the roadways. Although my bike held steady, the trailer clipped the edge and tipped over, spilling my precious plants onto the street. We gathered them up, pressing the soil back in around the young starts, righted the trailer, and set off again.

Once home, I carefully planted and watered, following the instructions from my book precisely. I dreamed about the bountiful harvest that awaited. I tended my garden faithfully over the next weeks, excited with each sign of life and growth. In the end, the harvest was not abundant. We got a few tomatoes, enough to make a few tomato sandwiches. Maybe a handful of green beans. No carrots, no spinach, no peppers, and perhaps one eggplant. I’m not even sure why I planted the eggplant because neither of us likes to eat eggplant! Turns out what I thought was decent sunlight was not nearly enough hours during the day to support vigorous vegetable growth. I also had much to learn about timing and seasons; carrots and spinach don’t do well in the hot Georgia summers. Still, tasting my first homegrown tomato had me hooked.

That garden was 13 summers ago. I suppose it is trite to say so much has changed since then, still, it is true. We’ve moved twice, got married, had two kids, and changed jobs numerous times. What started as a 4×4 raised bed in my backyard hobby is now a 25-acre farm with 4 species of livestock, a half-acre blueberry orchard, and 1/2 acre of vegetable production – more than a full-time job. As impressive as those details are, they just scratch the surface. The change runs much deeper.

The garden is where I go when other places in my life become unbearable. I’d say it is cheaper than therapy, but I just ordered this year’s seeds and well, I might be better off financially if I just went to therapy. But nothing soothes my soul like working up a good sweat in the garden, the sun shining down on me, soil in my hands, complete physical exhaustion. I joke that some moms like a glass of wine at the end of the day to decompress after the kids have gone to bed, but I just need an hour in the garden weed whacking the paths to set me right again. I remember one fight Bones and I had, actually, I don’t remember the fight it was probably trivial, I just remember being so angry I couldn’t think straight, so I headed down to the garden and weeded ruthlessly until the garden and my soul was free from the stranglehold and weeds and anger.

As someone who cares about the state of the world, longs to make a difference, and gets involved in all the ways I can, I often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems. Like the popular Facebook meme says, “My desire to be well-informed is at odds with my desire to remain sane.” My personal overwhelm does nothing to fix the world, in fact, the overwhelm leads to a sort of paralysis in which I disengage from the causes I care so much about. I’ve learned instead that my best response to feelings of overwhelm is to either dig a hole or turn the compost pile. The physical exhaustion that comes from these two activities leaves little room for anxiety-induced paralysis. Instead, I find the physical exertion allows my mind to wander in more constructive pathways. Each pitchfork full of refuse – garden waste, leaves, soiled animal bedding, manure – gets turned, exposed to heat and microbes, and eventually broken down into something useful, full of life.

I can’t solve the world’s problems, sometimes I can’t even solve my own, but I can turn a compost pile. With that compost, I can grow healthy food to feed my community. With that compost I am caring for the 25 acres of this earth I am blessed to steward. With that compost, I am reducing my negative impact on this earth with less waste, less tillage, less fossil fuel consumption. With that compost, I am keeping nitrogen-heavy manure from entering and polluting our watershed. With that compost the demons of anxiety and overwhelm that so often rage inside of me are quieted allowing me to be present for my kids, for my spouse, for my friends, for my community. With that compost, I turn the anger and fear into words of hope and encouragement for my congregation.

So how deep do you have to dig for soul prep? If I ever finish digging, I’ll let you know.

The Weight of Snow

I wrote this after a big snowstorm before Christmas.

We got almost a foot of snow yesterday. The kids and Bones were both delighted as the snow brings fun and time off from school and work. I’m not a fan. Freezing temps alone make caring for the critters harder. Their water needs refreshing throughout the day either by breaking the ice on the surface or hauling water in buckets from the house. Most of the critters also hate the snow. They hide in their huts, shivering and crying for more hay and bedding. Since the ground is covered, they can’t graze or root around for acorns, so I fork hay into their pens and bring them extra grain to stay warm. A light dusting of snow isn’t a big deal, but trudging through almost a foot of snow carrying five-gallon buckets full of water is no small feat.


Last night, as it began to get dark and the snow turned over to sleet, I became worried about the high tunnel plastic giving way under the weight of snow. We ran a small propane heater in the tunnel hoping the little bit of heat would encourage some shedding of snow from the tunnel’s peak. It was moderately successful at shedding from the lowest parts of the tunnel, but the peak was heavy with snow. Just minutes earlier I watched as our wash station roof (admittedly poorly constructed) collapsed under the weight of wet snow. I didn’t want to see our $10,000 tunnel follow suit. So, with a long pole covered in some cushioning at the very end, I set about knocking the snow off the tunnel. Standing inside I could reach all the way to the 15 ft peak with the pole and shake the plastic enough to get the snow moving. Big swaths of snow cascaded off the tunnel creating huge piles on either side. Inside, the warmth of the heater had created a layer of condensation on the plastic which rained down on me with every thrust of my pole. It took over an hour to shake down the bulk of the snow weight. Soaking wet from the condensation rain and my arms shaking with exhaustion, I finally had to concede that I couldn’t get all the snow off. Perhaps I had lessened the weight enough to prevent collapse. We left the heater running, hoping to keep the sleet from forming a sheet of ice on the tunnel overnight. The next morning, the tunnel was still standing and most of the remaining snow had slid off in the night, its way paved by the clearing I had done.


Every weekend Bones asks me if I have anything on my list to get done on the farm over the weekend. I always respond that there is always something on my list. I can’t imagine that my farm to-do list will ever be complete. Completion isn’t even really the goal. Each season brings a new set of chores, a new project, a new harvest. Every season has more work than I can accomplish. In many ways, farming is an exercise in becoming comfortable with the incompleteness of the world. I keep a to-do list because it keeps me focused, not because I have any hope of crossing off every item. Today, my list contains an array of building projects and fencing repairs that I put off till winter. But there’s a foot of snow on the ground. They’ll have to wait while I spend more time tending the animals, knock the snow off the high tunnel, and bake some cookies with my kids. I could feel anxious about all the things I can’t do today, but that does me no good and the job still can’t be done. The truth is, it will never all be done.


Meanwhile, clergy friends of mine just went down to the border to provide support and advocacy for the migrant caravan. I have watched their actions online. Leaving home, spouses, children, jobs, they put themselves in danger to stand up for the most marginalized among us. I watch their actions with a mix of admiration, grief, and guilt. Should I go too? Should I be putting myself on the line like that, using my voice and my body to stand up for another? But who would take care of my animals? Who would feed and water them in this storm? Who would keep my high tunnel from collapsing? Who would tend my kids?


Sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I think about the enormity of the world’s problems. I want to be engaged in making the world a better place. That’s why I farm. That’s why I am in ministry. That’s why I am involved in my community. I can’t do it all though. You can’t do it all. I take comfort and encouragement in this passage from the Talmud.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – From The Talmud, 303.


I am responsible for the things in my sphere of influence. Raising my kids to be thoughtful, faithful, engaged citizens of this world. Tending the critters and land in my care in a way that honors them, conserves energy, regenerates the landscape, and provides healthy food for my community. Sharing what I know about how to grow food, how to feed people, how to care for our earth through a more gentle and respectful form of agriculture. Feeding people in my community both in body and in spirit. Being an engaged member of this small town, rural community where I live, supporting the business and individuals here, participating in the civic life to help improve conditions for my neighbors, supporting the school system, being a voice for those on the margins of this community. These are the weights I can bear, the weights I can work to relieve. Focusing on this does not relieve me of caring about the world, of being informed and engaged, of providing financial support to organizations of individuals working in other areas. It is, however, the work I can do, the work I am called to do. My producing food allows another to focus on the work of advocacy. Sometimes I look at my fellow clergy folks who put their bodies on the front line at the border, in protests, on the streets, on the steps of our nation’s capital and I feel a twinge of guilt that I am not there. The truth is, I put my body on the line every day. I put it on the line of producing good, clean food. I put it on the line of feeding my community. I put it on the line of standing up for those on the margins of this community. I put it on the line of providing support and comfort and hope to those around me. We need each other and all the ways each of us puts ourselves on the front lines each day.

Carrot Seeds

The parable of the mustard seed drives me a bit batty. It’s not the smallest seed. Basil is considerably smaller and lavender seeds are impossibly tiny. Also, it does not grow into a big bush. Perhaps the mustard of Jesus’ day was just bigger than the mustard I know, who knows. I mean, I get the point of the parable, but if I had to choose a seed it would be a carrot seed. It is just as small as a mustard seed, but whereas you can just toss a mustard seed wherever, forget about it and still get decent results, carrot seeds need tending and care. They can take as much as three weeks to germinate and they need daily watering till they do. Meanwhile, the fast-growing weeds can quickly choke out the delicate carrot seedlings. But the end result is so worth it, sweet and nutritious, especially fall carrots that make it through a freeze.
That’s more what faith is to me. A seed that needs daily care and nurturing to realize the fullness of its life-giving potential, made sweeter after weathering the harshness of life.
I had to waste a considerable amount of carrot seed before I got a decent bed of carrots. Last summer I planted carrots three times before finally reaching success. The first bed I planted about a week before going away for a few days. I came back to a severely, dry cracked bed and no matter how much I watered, the seeds never germinated. The next planting I tried to correct by watering a little every day, but a month later, still no seedlings in sight. I resigned myself to one more planting. This time I found a length of soaker hose and ran it every day for an hour. Success! Though perhaps a month too late. The carrots were delicious but just didn’t get big enough before winter stunted their growth. However, I finally had a recipe for success. Subsequent carrot sowings have been more successful, though I still lose some to weeds.
I am a person of faith today because of all the people in my life who have watered and tended the carrot seeds of my faith throughout my life. I don’t have some dramatic story of losing my faith and coming back to it, or finding faith after years of searching, or any trauma or major life event that forged my faith in the fire so to speak. Instead, it has been the slow, steady watering by many faithful souls along the way. Is that a story worth reading about? I hope so because I think it is true for many folks. Ordinary lives lived faithfully.
Folks often suggest that I write a book about my adventures in farming. Perhaps I will one day. For now, though, I have lots of stories to share, reflections on food and farming, and how I find faith in the midst. I’m not a great photographer and I doubt you’ll find any earth-shattering new insights here, but I hope you’ll find some carrot seeds for your own faith.