Cultivating an “Agri-culture” of Justice

Written by Gretchen Rops //

Agriculture is unique. Is there any other discipline that so effortlessly combines science and art? Care for the environment and care for people? Occupation and lifestyle? The potential for agriculture to promote justice is immense.

Justice mandates that all people be fed. Justice mandates that the earth be cared for and preserved for generations to come.

But today’s agricultural system is fragmented, full of divisions and tensions. As a Christian, and as one who has grown up surrounded by agriculture and then chosen to make agriculture a part of my life, I feel this fragmentation deeply.

Somewhere, once upon a time, agriculture had a decision to make, a direction to choose. And now we are living with the results of that decision. Was it a good one? Arguments could be made either way. I believe that for Christians practicing agriculture, decision time has come again. This decision-making requires that we look at the past and seek to understand. This decision-making requires that we look critically at the present and reevaluate whether our practices follow the morals we espouse, whether our practices follow the mandates of justice.

I have been exposed to agriculture my whole life in one form or another. Growing up and going to college in the Midwest, I have been surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans, the feeding of cattle and pigs, mostly on a large scale. Our own farm – not the main generator of income for our family – was a little different. Our cropped acres are small by most standards, and I can remember many different things growing in them: corn, soybeans, oats, wheat, alfalfa, even turnips and lentils as a cover crop and for grazing. About 30 cows and their calves graze our pasture and a couple other rented pastures. Recently, my little brother has added a flock of laying hens to the mix. For a few years, we had a couple honeybee hives. I was personally most involved in the raising of our pigs. We typically have 5-8 sows at a time, and I learned how to breed them via artificial insemination, and how to care for the piglets when they were born, including ear notching, castration, and vaccinations. Our farm is small and diverse. Its location along a small river contributes to a diversity of wildlife as well. It’s not uncommon to spot beavers, ducks, geese, turkeys, opossums, and muskrats at different times of the year.

This is the place I grew up. I have not realized until leaving how important it is.

I studied agriculture in college, mostly taught within a Midwestern, large-scale context. I studied abroad for a semester in Nicaragua. My views started changing. I began to work on a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable farm. My views started changing some more. I was asking questions, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the agricultural practices around me.

For the first time, I wondered about our huge amounts of corn production, and where that corn actually goes. It dawned on me that there is a difference between food and commodity. I gave myself permission to think that if raising hundreds of animals in an indoor, highly-controlled environment seems and feels unnatural, maybe that’s because it is. I thought about what kind of life large-scale agriculture provides for the laborers that make it run, and I realized that having a job is not the same as flourishing. The agricultural practices I had once supported and defended had come to seem extremely problematic.

I came to intern for 14 months at ECHO in Fort Myers, Florida, and that is where I am as I write this. Agriculture is practiced here with the small-scale farmer in mind. All the work we do here – demonstration, research, training, publications – is intended to serve the small-scale farmer, to help him or her be successful, to promote his or her well-being, thereby promoting the well-being of a community.

Though ECHO’s work is focused on the tropics and on developing countries, my mind constantly wanders back to the Midwest. I think about how the principles carried out here could be applied there. I think about the distance between these two worlds. I think about the distance even between the CSA I worked on and the corn fields that are its neighbors. Sometimes the gap, the tension, feels insurmountable.

Justice mandates that all people be fed. Justice mandates that the earth be cared for and preserved for generations to come.

Is this what we’re accomplishing?

I believe that my fellow Christians in agriculture – in whatever context they practice it – care about the earth and care about people. But when is the last time we sat down and thought, really thought, about what we’re doing? When is the last time we considered such things as balance and proper scale? When is the last time we considered protecting rural culture, or considered the impacts of needing less and less people on the farm? When is the last time we considered innovation and creativity of the radical type, not just jumping on the latest technology that is merely a continuation of the same direction we’ve been heading? When is the last time we considered the ramifications of a system that makes unhealthy food the cheapest thing on the grocery store shelves?

These are hard questions. Agriculture has been good to me. The Midwest has been good to me. But I long to see it reevaluate itself, to see it embrace a deeper passion for justice, for care of earth and care of people. Agriculture is unique. Its potential is enormous. It is also diverse. If we come to the table together, maybe, just maybe, we can find a further glimpse of the Kingdom come.


Gretchen Rops is a South Dakota native and a graduate of Dordt College with an agricultural missions degree. She is currently part of the 14 month internship program at ECHO in Fort Myers, Florida, where she is learning about small-scale agriculture, underutilized plants, and living in community. She enjoys raising pigs, growing food for herself and others, reading, and writing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s