02/29/12 — Connecting farms and faith

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Connecting farms and faith

By Kelly Corbett
Published in News on February 29, 2012 1:46 PM

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At top, Larry Williams speaks to a group of pastors from churches around the region in his workshop entitled "The Pastor as a Spiritual Guide" during the second annual "Faith and Rural Life: Down To Earth Ministry Conference" held at the Murphy Regional Center on the campus of Mount Olive College Monday afternoon. At right, N.C. Department of Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler gives one of the keynote talks.

The intersection of faith, farms and food was the focus of Monday's Faith and Rural Life Conference at Mount Olive College.

Drawing state representatives, ministers, students, community leaders and residents from across the region, the second annual "Faith and Rural Life: Down To Earth Ministry Conference" tackled the issues of agriculture and religion, and the often-intersecting roles the two play in people's lives in rural eastern North Carolina.

And one of the main topics of the day-long conference was the fact that not only do many people not know where their food comes from, but that many rural North Carolinians are going without nutritious meals, or even any meals at all -- two issues that can begin to be alleviated through local food efforts.

"There's a lot of hunger right now in the world," North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said. "We need to cherish this ($70 billion) industry in North Carolina and across the country. You can't plant a tree today and harvest it tomorrow."

Fred Bahnson, writer and co-founder of Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, also said many people do not know or care where their food comes from, and that many expect it to "magically appear."

The average budget in America for food is only 10 percent of one's income -- though compared to other countries, such as Haiti where food eats up 70 percent of income, that's low.

"This is a practical problem, but it is also a spiritual problem," Bahnson said.

People are suffering from hunger; people are suffering from obesity; and while some are not getting enough to eat, many are not getting enough nutritious foods to eat.

"We are in the prime position to promote human flourishing," Bahnson said. "One of the best ways to promote human flourishing is to grow food with your neighbor and share it."

But the connection between food and faith goes much deeper than the responsibility of Christians to make sure those around them are fed, with many symbolic practices featuring food items as part of worship services, such as the breaking of the bread.

"Food is at the heart of our faith," Bahnson said.

However, for many attending the conference, the focus was on how they and the church can help feed those around them -- with community gardens being one popular solution.

Bahnson explained that a community garden can serve as a place for people to learn about fruits and vegetables and the importance of local produce so they can take that knowledge and apply it to other areas.

Ending the conference, Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, said that he grew up in Mount Olive and attended Mount Olive Presbyterian Church, which now has two community gardens producing crops, such as collards, kale and turnips.

"In Mount Olive, whenever people were hungry, we would help them out with food," Hall said, pointing to the church's current efforts, and encouraging young adults to get involved in such efforts as well.

About 20 of the Mount Olive College students who attended the conference are part of the agribusiness or agriculture education programs at the college.

"It has been great for our students," said Sandy Maddox, director of the Lois G. Britt Agribusiness Center at the college.

Freshman Taylor Glance, an agriculture education major, said she plans to work with the greenhouses and rose beds located next to the Pope Wellness Center next semester. She said she ultimately would like to teach the community about agriculture by becoming an agriculture extension agent.

"You never realize how often Christianity and agriculture go hand-in-hand," Ms. Glance said.

Susan Lackey said she saw information about the conference in her church newsletter from Moseley Creek Church and said she saw the conference as a celebration of the small community church and its efforts.

Mrs. Lackey drove to Mount Olive from Craven County to attend the conference with her friend, Lois Wetherington.

"We need to celebrate our rural community, our rural setting," she said. "We can just glean so much from each other."

Mrs. Lackey has a quarter-acre farm with sweet potatoes, collards, green beans and corns.

"It is an art, not a science," she said. "We're living in an instant society."

She said she is just amazed when it comes time to pull potatoes out of the ground to see God's creation and how it's grown. And, she added, she always plants enough for the animals to enjoy, too -- especially corn for the raccoons who have an uncanny ability to tell when it's ripe.

Ms. Wetherington said she originally came to the conference to support her friend, but immediately found she had close ties to the issues being addressed.

"I grew up on a farm so I know all about it," she said.

She currently works with the women's program as part of the Farm Bureau's efforts to promote awareness of farm life.

"We live in a community where we all have gardens and we share with each other," Ms. Wetherington said.

She said she participated in an old-fashioned hog killing last week for the first time in many years. Sausage, pork chops and liver pudding are some of the fruits of labor produced by an old-fashioned hog killing, she said.

"This is an art that's been lost," Ms. Wetherington said.

Conference organizers were excited for the turnout of this year's conference and the many speakers and workshops throughout the long day as more than 150 people attended from across the state, with a few even traveling up from South Carolina, almost twice the number of attendees from last year's conference.

"I believe we've succeeded," said David Hines, dean of the college's arts and sciences department.