The Conference started with a thought provoking overview of farming in the last 50 years. In the afternoon we discussed the ways in which ACF had carried out its stated aims during that time – fellowship, witness and evangelism, seeking Biblical insight on farming issues and to support those in difficulties. Although each aspect was reviewed on its own there was no time to consider how they all fitted together or what the totality represented or the ways in which work in one sphere enables that in another. When faithfully carried out, they are all expressions of the Gospel – “word made flesh”. It sometimes happens that those active in one aspect of Christian witness discount activities in others – partly perhaps because they feel that their own part is devalued by those others, but perhaps they fear being expected to play a role for which we have not the calling or the gifts. In ACF we need to take very seriously Paul’s teaching about this and support and pray for each other in our differing roles within the one Fellowship. In 1 Cor. v12.“There are many different gifts but it is always the same spirit; there are many different ways of serving, but it is always the same Lord; there are many different forms of activity but in everything it is the same God who is at work in them all”. In his closing comments Ivor MacDonald made the same points.
Lord Donald Curry reflects on changes in farming
Lord Donald Curry was brought up in a Christian farming family inNorthumbriaas tractors replaced horses and change began to accelerate. 260 acres were farmed by a farmer and three employees with a lot of hard physical work. One of the few disagreements he had with his father was about the conflicting need to finish stooking and the need to go outwith his girlfriend! The family ate from the farm and there was no electricity until Donald was ten. Among the population there was a community spirit and a lot of mutual help. Biodiversity and wildlife thrived.
Mid 60’s to mid 80’s
He married (to the lady who competed with the sheaves!) and had children. In 1971 he started farming himself borrowing money for the purpose. It was the era of “making two blades of grass grow where one grew before”, of new technology, of entry into the EU in 1973 and of the White Paper “Food from our own resources” in 1975. However, problems began to emerge. The countryside had been de-populated and the foundations had been laid for environmental problems. Farming was hugely dependent on oil. By the end of the period gathering self-sufficiency had led to surplus and “food mountains”.
The problem became how to slow production down which led to confusion in farming culture and in public policy. The advisory service was privatised and public investment in research was reduced.
1990’s – a dreadful period
BSE, E-Coli, Salmonella, Food and Mouth disease, low consumer confidence, the emergence of climate change.
Creation of the Sustainable Farming Commission .
A new demanding phase in Donald Curry’s life and a harbinger of new approaches?
God’s work is a constant struggle.
Opening Worship with
What is at the heart of our Christian concern for agriculture? We could answer that both negatively and positively: “opposing the effects of sin and promoting the kingdom of God in agriculture.” The story of Naboth’s vineyard is a key passage because it highlights those concerns very practically. The fact that Naboth happens to be a smallholder is central to the story.
1 The disruption sin causes: sin causes disruption in two ways.
a. It causes man to ignore God’s revealed will in relation to the land.
The key to the story is Naboth’s refusal to upgrade his holding. Ahab offers him a move up the ladder if he will only relinquish his small holding. He will give him cash or even a better vineyard. But Naboth is aghast at this. “God forbid that I should sell the inheritance of my fathers.” This brings us straight to the Old Testament provision for maintaining a connection between land and people. The land of Israel belonged not to the families who technically “owned” it, but to God, who had brought the Israelites into the land in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise and had, through Joshua, allocated its various parts to the tribes as their inheritance (e.g., Gen. 17:8; Lev. 25:23; Josh. 13:1–7). Individual Israelites could not sell land in perpetuity, and a complex set of laws such as the Jubilee law kept land in the family and prevented its accumulation in the hands of a few (e.g., Deut. 25:5–10). Ahab’s offer is evidence of his disregard for God’s will revealed in his law that the people should not be denied their heritage in the land.
If we believe that Old Testament civil law points the way for ethics today then from the Jubilee laws we learn that the free market cannot be allowed to lead to a situation where the population are divorced from the land.
Now that of course is the situation we have largely arrived at in countries like theUK. The alienation from the land is a feature of sin. The result of the entry of sin in the human situation is three-way alienation. Man’s relationship with God is broken, man and woman are estranged and plunged into an atmosphere of rivalry and our relationship with the land is fractured. As a result of sin, food production has that element of futility and frustration inherent it. The earth seems to resist husbandry, and husbandry is hard work! But what is also very significant is that humanity becomes detached from his environment – “rootless”. We see this after the Fall in Genesis. When Cain in his jealous pique kills his brother the curse to befall on him is to become rootless. He becomes a man of no fixed abode.
By contrast the idealised picture of shalom is for man in community with the land – “every man under his own fig tree.” And the story line of the Bible seems to be one of relational harmony to alienation to restoration. Sin brings chaos to the harmony of man to God; man to woman and man to land. But at the end of the story we findEden is restored. Once again there is a river. There is mention again of brilliant stones just as inEden. There are trees mentioned but their leaves are now for the healing of the nations.
I am convinced that at the heart of our Christian concern must be the conviction that the land is for the many and not the few. We are on the side of the family farm rather than agribusiness not for sentimental reasons but because it has been the most obvious model to conform to the principle of democratising agriculture.
b. Refusal to conform to God’s pattern results in injustice.
Ahab will not accept “no” for an answer. He goes into a big huff and Jezebel investigates why he’s not turned up for tea. When she is told what has happened she provokes him to take action to prove that he is no wimp. And together they conspire to dispossess Ahab and take the vineyard. The belief that might is right results in the murder of an innocent man in order that a king might grab land. There are clear matters of social justice entailed in our Christian concern for agriculture. Whether that be the use of GM technology as a tool to oppress the poor business or the imbalance in the food supply chain so that farmers in our country are driven to the edge of despair in the race to the bottom. Our calling as Christians with a concern for agriculture is to speak prophetically to these issues.
Sadly religion is often used by the powerful to cover over their injustice. Jezebel arranges for the dirty deed to be done at a day of fasting and when Naboth is falsely accused she ensures that there are two scoundrels giving false witness to comply with the Law of God’s requirement for at least two witnesses. The injustice that she plots will be done religiously. The church has not always got it right. During the nineteenth century evictions of people from my own Scottish Highlands, ministers of the Established church often sided with landed interest and gave validity from the pulpit to what the landlords were doing.
2 God will vindicate his people.
Elijah is sent to confront Ahab and Jezebel and pronounces God’s judgment on them. Ahab’s house will meet with disaster and his descendants will be consumed just as he consumed poor Naboth and dogs will eat the body of Jezebel. But it is all too late for poor Naboth and we are reminded that we must be patient and we must be realistic. The gospel brings substantial (but not complete) healing of the ravages of sin.
Christopher Wright, tells of a man who came to faith through reading the story of Naboth. He was an Indian who had grown up in a community in Indiathat is systematically exploited and treated with contempt. Having toyed with Marxism he was given a Bible by some Christian students in college. It happened that the first story he read was that of Naboth Jezebel and Ahab. He was astonished to see that the issues – greed for land, abuse of the poor corruption and violence against the poor were all things that he was familiar with. But ever more amazing was the fact that God took Naboth’s side and not only accused Ahab and Jezebel but took vengeance on them. Here was a God of justice a God who identified the real villains and who took real action against them. “I never thought such a God existed!” he said. He read on through the rest of OT history and he found that God consistently took the side of the oppressed and took action against their enemies. He became attracted to this God and was eventually converted.
May God enable ACF to provide that testimony in our own sphere of agriculture to the God of justice who sides with the oppressed.
British Agriculture 1945 – 2012
Professor John Hodges reflects on changes – good and bad
John Hodges was born in 1928. He had farming grandparents: his grandfather used to sell eggs in Banbury market and when John was at school he spent spare time working on a local farm. His first job, which lasted two years, was with Northamptonshire Farmers. After this came a spell in the Royal Airforce. Armed with an ex-serviceman’s grant he then went to study agriculture at Reading University. This led to teaching at Cambridge for four years followed by thirteen years with the Milk Marketing Board. Here he dealt with milk records, artificial insemination, progeny testing, and advisory work for dairy farmers. After this, he taught genetics for twelve years at the University of British Colombia in Canada. This was followed by a period with United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. After his “retirement” he worked in Eastern Europe on EU projects. So before ACF began and all the time since, he has been involved in agriculture affairs. As if that was not enough, he had a role in the very founding of ACF as it emerged from the technical colleges’ fellowship.
1945 – 1965 – Food sense and happy days for farmers
Food was on peoples’ minds and farmers were heroes. Food rationing lasted from 1939 – 1954. The 1947 Agriculture Act affirmed the importance of farming and food. Government was commited to:
- Financial support
- Technical support
- Free advice services
- Agricultural training and education and research
The level of farm subsidies were fixed yearly and these were understood to be a means of ensuring cheap food. There was an emphasis on production with grants for lime, building and drainage improvement and programmes to eliminate animal diseases including Bovine TB, Brucellosis, Johne’s Disease, Tuberculosis, and Foot and Mouth Disease. At the same time pastuerisation of milk became general.
Industry also contributed – The grey Ferguson tractor heralded a major change in the capability of tractors, whilst bailers and combine harvesters became common place. Work became easier. Other introductions were bulk milk handling, compound animal feeds and artificial insemination. Via the Milk Marketing Board new breeds of beef cattle were imported from Europe.
There were two major scientific advances: Selective weedkillers simplified the growing of crops and computers began to impact on plant and animal breeding.
There were important institutions
- Farmers Marketing Boards
- Pig Industry Development Association
- Meat and Livestock Association
- A variety of agricultural shows including the Royal at the National Agricultural Centre
- Active farming institutes and agricultural colleges and of course there was, near the end of the period,
- ACF itself
At the end of the period there was beginning to be too much food not too little. There was even a butter mountain! Poultry had changed from an expensive luxury into cheap meat and a revolution in plant breeding, fungicides and nitrogen usage was underway. It had been twenty years in which purposes were clear and everybody seemed to be pulling together.
1965 – 1985 – All change
As food had become plentiful the word “productivity” replaced “production”. The pre-occupation was with farming as a business rather than a drive to feed people. Food was to be ever cheaper: economic and biological efficiency were a means to this end. In this period troubles and seeds were sown.
- The food chain began to be left unregulated in market forces
- The power of multi-national companies both as providers of farming inputs and as users and retailers of farming products grew inexorably.
- Some parts of farming began to look more like factories than farms.
- Environmental damage began to be associated with recently adopted techniques.
- In a “free” world market competitive advantage could be gained by “externalising” (or ignoring) costs incurred by migrant labourers or the environment.
- The eating quality of food began to decline.
- The Milk Marketing Board was abolished.
- Science began to be under control of business and the results of research be commercial property.
- The US Supreme Court allowed the patenting of naturally occurring living organisms or their genes.
- The US Food and Drugs Administration became too compliant with the wishes of large companies.
1985 – 2012
There then followed trials, tribulations and crises largely arising from the mistakes made.
- Foot and Mouth epidemics 2001 and 2007
- Bird and Swine flu
- Periods of low producer prices worldwide
- Globalization increases the average wealth of some countries but in both developed and developing countries the gap between rich and poor people is increased. There is no ‘Trickle-Down.
- Premature and unethical use of inadequately-tested genetically modified plants which have not, to date, increased food production. Genetic modification of livestock is being pursued together with cloning but products are not yet on the market in the EU. The science is poorly understood and produces many deformed animals
- Common agricultural policy started to address environmental issues.
- There was some control of the use of antibiotics from 1988 and the use of growth promoting hormones in livestock was stopped in 2006.
- Battery cages are being removed from poultry production and residue problems in food have improved in the last twenty years.
- Governments were coming more aware of the need to nurture farming and food production.
- Science and research are still dominated by large companies and there is too much emphasis on genetic modification.
- Many governments do not see the unique civilising influence of farming and rural communities, nor do they realise that agriculture is irreplaceable.
- Food species are God’s gift for food.
Some reflections from the bible
Mankind is the appointed steward of the earth and its resources. This requires care and use but not abuse.
Work is a constant struggle.
A Message from the Bible for Those who Exploit and Cheat Others – James 5:1-8*
“And a final word to you arrogant rich: Take some lessons in lament. You’ll need buckets for the tears when the crash comes upon you. Your money is corrupt and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your gut, destroying your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth. What you’ve piled up is judgment. All the workers you’ve exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of the Master Avenger. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up. But all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse. In fact, what you’ve done is condemn and murder perfectly good persons, who stand there and take it. Meanwhile, friends, wait patiently for the Master’s Arrival. You see farmers do this all the time, waiting for their valuable crops to mature, patiently letting the rain do its slow but sure work. Be patient like that. Stay steady and strong. The Master could arrive at any time.”
*The Message © 2004 by Eugene Peterson
Micah 6:8, (NIV)
“He has shown you, O man, what is good, And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God,”
Morning Discussion Groups
Delegates with a wide variety of experience as farmers, big and small, male and female, livestock and arable, advisers and research workers, discussed their experience of the trends described by John Hodges and Donald Curry: how they had experienced them, felt them, interpreted them, and learned from them.
The earlier period had been experienced in contrasting ways. For some, it had been an experience of progress, opportunity and fulfilment, some others who have experience of working in the “Third World” where farming needs were so much more obvious had almost begun to wonder whether their role in domestic farming was useful or necessary. These two extremes of experience began to converge as a whole cultural drive to increase production started to dissolve. The changes and developments of the last 20 years had led for some to a compulsive urge to grow their businesses in order to survive, to financial problems and accumulative sense of stress. Sometimes they created family tensions or exacerbated those that already existed. Often a sense of isolation developed as social and advisory networks disappeared.
More widely, there seems to have developed a lack of trust which colours much of life that has been especially evident in deteriorating relations between farmers and government. There is a short termism which clashes with the needs of farming and a gulf between farming and the rest of the population.nIssues of power, “market forces” and even injustice have loomed larger and larger.
Out of all this has come reflection and change . People talked about the need to learn lessons rather than ceaselessly churning difficulties in one’s head, the need to avoid self reliance, the need to try and match the rythm of one’s life and farming to God’s rythm (Sunday observance needs to be reconsidered and the need to address issues of climate and stewardship in one’s own life and work). We have to recognise the pattern of relationships among God, people and Creation.
Romans Chapter 8, verses 28 and 29, seem to address much of this.
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren”
What is the point of farming?
Tim Gorringe’s presentation raised some searching and unexpected issues. It was designed to start preparation for our next Conference which will look ahead at the future of farming and ACF. We think that we have provided enough meat for one Update!, and so we are saving this until next time. Editor
ACF in the last fifty years – Afternoon discussions
After spending the morning thinking about farming as a whole, in the afternoon we began by considering how ACF has pursued the stated aims of the organisation. Most obviously there is the question of fellowship. On the positive side, a remarkable proportion of quite a small membership attends the annual conferences, which have been characterised by vigour, warmth and truth. There has been a common mind and a mutual affection. There has also been very strong fellowship among the National Committee – undergirded by prayer and by eating together! This fellowship has embraced members who like Gordon Gatward had significant roles in other rural Christian bodies.
This has been much harder to reproduce at the local level, and in truth, it has only been achieved, in the name of ACF, over the long term in Derbyshire.
There have also been some opportunities for fellowship with Christian farmers in Canada and Germany which have perhaps not been followed up as they might have been.
The question of local groups was significant in the discussion about evangelism. This group was clear that whilst a concern and support for this applied to all of us, we need realistic expectations about and recognition of peoples gifts. Not everybody has a calling or gifts to be an evangalist but everyone can pray and show love and kindness to those they come into contact with.
There was also a recognition of the importance of “like to like”: in our case the importance of farmers relations with farmers. We also need to recognise that for many, time to think and aborb is important and that evangalism can take many forms but friendship and relationships are nearly always important. In this connection the group looked at the reasons for the continued life and vigour of the Derbyshire group. They have a planning team, farmers invite other farmer friends and acquaintances, the meetings are lively and interesting with good fellowship and once more there emerges the importance of food!
From within these two groups there arose the suggestion of creating some kind of young peoples ACF network.
Another group looked at the history involved in the “Agriculture Theology Project”. This arose in the late 80’s as the farming landscape began to fill with ethical issues. The ACF Committee saw that there was a gap between biblical understandings and the debates in farming about these issues. Working with others and with theological advice they painstaking reproduced “Biblical Signposts of Agriculture Policy”.This gradually achieved some leadership within the UK and beyond and provided the foundation stone of the Agriculture Theology Project. This is now a Partnership between ACF, The Church Mission Society and the John Ray Initiative. The object is to look unblinkingly at the realities of farming in the world, as a whole and scripture and to bring the two things together; and then to produce ideas and evidence and to argue for change. This involves following up publications and networking with individuals and organisations. Currently three lines of work are dominant:
- “Cultivating Understanding” is a short document about advice and extension work and research, based on the need to grasp that relationships and trust, an understanding of the real nature of farming as more than any business need to be brought into this area.
- The Project is trying to work with other Christian Organisations to provide guidelines for Climate and Agriculture.
- The production of a book of Biblical reflections on farming complete with study material.
There was considerable discussion about this, One person testified to the significance in his life of the “Biblical Signposts” booklet. John Hodges commented that in his experience when you raised underlying moral issues in conferences and meetings most people appeared to accept the points made but that led to no change in systems. One of the systems that he was particularly unhappy about was that of the World Trade Organisations. He also described multinational corporations as “roaming powers”. There was agreement about the need for ACF to address these issues.
Closing Worship – Ivor Macdonald
Based on Mark 6:30-44
1 The compassion of Jesus. Verse 34 is a wonderful verse! When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd “he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Our Lord was beset by many different problems. It was not long since the death of John and that would have touched our Lord in his humanity. He has been overrun by people coming and going so that they did not have a chance to eat and as a result Jesus decided that they all needed to go to a quiet place and get some rest. But when they do get far from the madding crowd they discover that the madding crowd is hard on their heels and eventually catches up with them. And yet our Lord is not resentful of this nor does he safeguard his privacy and rest by putting up barriers. He has compassion on them. He looks and sees that they are directionless people. They are out in the desert seeking him and yet they aren’t really sure what it is they want. They have no one to give direction, no one to lead them. And Jesus had compassion
2 The priority of the Word. It is instructive that the immediate fruit of Jesus compassion was not the feeding miracle but was teaching. V 34 he had compassion so he taught them many things. Here he gives the people bread in the wilderness. Wandering in the wilderness led by Moses the people had been made to hunger and then provided with bread that they might learn a lesson and that was “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And so it is here. We see the priority of the word of God. It is the Word that brings life. The miracle of multiplying the loaves and fish is simply a sign that makes visible the gospel. It lends credibility to the message that Jesus shares. We need to remember that when we involve ourselves in agriculture and matters of economic justice and structures and so on. People’s great need is always Jesus himself and they will meet Jesus through the Word of God. The work of evangelism must always be given priority in one sense. It is not a question of social action or evangelism but the two together and awareness that social action is the handmaid of the gospel. It brings credibility to our message. Jesus had compassion and so he preached.
3 The miracle of food. It must have been a wonderful sight to have seen the bread and the fish multiply either from the hands of the lord or from the baskets that went round. But equally wonderful is the miracle of agriculture. We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. That is so profoundly true. Hidden in the cold soil or deep in the womb of the cow the sow or the ewe God works the miracle of multiplication. What a privilege it is to be connected indifferent ways with this continual reminder of the power of God. No wonder the prophets would point on occasion tithe processes of agriculture as testimony to the existence of God. Let us not allow our scientific sophistication to rob us of our awe before the miracle of food.
4 The importance of thankfulness. And finally note the importance of thankfulness. Jesus first arranged for an orderly arrangement of the people. They were fed that day in groups of hundreds and fifties. And then he took the loaves and fish and looking up to heaven he gave thanks. We are not told what Jesus prayed but it t may have been the typical Jewish father’s prayer before meal: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bringest forth bead from the earth.”
Ingratitude is a root sin. It was the sin of our first parents. It is opposed by thankfulness. So how appropriate it is that we should gather in this way to thank God for 50 years of his goodness to the Agricultural Christian Fellowship. Fifty years of testimony to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over agriculture.