Jesse Straight never imagined himself as a farmer. His parents weren’t farmers. But then he started reading Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin in college, and his life went in a new direction. Listening to Jesse Straight’s story on WAMU radio’s Metro Connection reminded me of something I once heard Gene Logsdon say in a panel discussion about the future of farming. Logsdon, an Ohio writer and farmer, believes there are a lot of people – including “city people” – who are called to be farmers but haven’t recognized or accepted that vocation yet. Straight has accepted the call.
If my own deep affection and appreciation for Wendell Berry isn’t apparent by now, we need to hang out more. Choosing just one of Berry’s forty-plus books – including poetry, fiction, and nonfiction – to include in the BtB 100 was a pleasant agony. In the end, I wrote about Jayber Crow, a novel. It was the essay I wanted to write most, which means it was the essay I wrote last.
Most of us encountered Joel Salatin for the first time in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book that changed the national conversation about the ethics of eating. Salatin is a full-time farmer at Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley. I have little direct experience with his writing, though two of his books, You Can Farm and Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, are sitting expectantly on my bookshelf. I do regularly scour the web for Salatin interviews and speeches. Passionate and provocative, I once heard him compare big agriculture biotech companies to abortion doctors. Salatin is representative of how the ethical eating conversation has changed even within American Christianity. In addition to being a third-generation alternative farmer, Salatin is a graduate of Bob Jones University. When Salatin was an undergraduate there in the seventies, students were warned to avoid “the food cult” of the natural food movement. In 2009, Salatin was named BJU’s Alumnus of the Year.
Berry and Salatin both bring deeply Christian perspectives to their farming and writing. And there is a moving moment in the WAMU profile when Jesse Straight prays before he slaughters his chickens. “Help us to be respectful and grateful for what You’ve given,” he petitions. This brought to mind one of my favorite Wendell Berry poems, which I wrote on a white board in our kitchen. It is in the form of “A Prayer before Eating”:
I have taken in the light
that quickened eye and leaf.
May my brain be bright with praise
of what I eat, in the brief blaze
of motion and of thought.
May I be worthy of my meat.
I continue to hope that I have a vocation for farming. But regardless, young farmers like Jesse Straight – and, of course, Wendell Berry, Joel Salatin, and Gene Logsdon, stewards of land and word – remind me to approach the table with humility and reverence.