Thereís A Sabbath In the Land

Rev. John Pitney

An Introduction

In February of 2001, the Rev. John Pitney served as our teacher and spiritual guide during the Local Foods Local Farms Advocacy Week that took place in and around the Mid Atlantic region. The Rev. John Pitney describes himself as a farm kid, songwriter, storyteller, land theologian, and United Methodist minister currently residing in Eugene, Oregon. 

He was raised on land belonging to the Kalapooyan people of Oregon's Willamette Valley and settled by his Oregon Trail family in 1853. John served as adjunct staff of the Western Small Church--Rural Life Center. There he coordinated (1986-1997) the Center's Forum on Church and Land--an annual gathering bringing discernment of Jewish and Christian faith traditions to the relationship between humanity and God's Creation. 

Since 1986 John has been advocating for more just, sustainable, and democratic ways of producing and consuming food and fiber. Most recently his passion is alerting citizens about the impacts of a food system owned and patented "from seed to consumer-mouth" by a few vertically integrated transnational corporations (TNCs). John uses his unique gift of guitar chords, lyrics and theology to communicate a message of justice and action on behalf of all Godís children, creatures, flora, and non-sentient earth matter. John says he cares most about the kind of Creation we pass on to all of Godís human and creature children and who gets a share in its daily bread.


Thereís A Sabbath In the Land:

Reflections from the "Local Foods - Local Farms Advocacy Week"

By the Rev. John Pitney

Thomís Story

We were assembled at the front of the Allison United Methodist sanctuary in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Thom Marti, a local orchardist and market manager of the "Old Pomfret Street Farmerís Market" in Carlisle, PA was speaking with quiet resolve. Most of our crowd was made up of students from Dickinson College. We all sat on the edge of our pews. Thomís story helped us remember why our work in food system justice must keep on keeping on. This was the fourth of the eight events of "Local Foods---Local Farms Advocacy Week." 

The week was sponsored by Just Community Food Systems of South Central PA (JCFS), a joint partnership of South Central Community Action Programs (SCCAP) and St. James Lutheran Church, Gettysburg, PA. The event was funded by a grant from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A team of us, led by Jon and Suse Greenstone of JCFS and me, Rev. John Pitney, the guest facilitator from First United Methodist Church in Eugene, Oregon had already led similar gatherings in Gettysburg and Harrisburg. We would do the same in Winchester VA, Washington D.C., and Hinkletown, PA before we were done.

 In each and every event something new and extraordinary came to germination. Tonight it began with Thom. He supposed most of us didnít know the Carlisle market was one of the oldest continuously operating markets in the country; it started way before the Civil War. We didnít. It is. Thom didnít tell us how hugely successful the market is, in fact he expressed his frustration by the low number of farmers who participate. But he did want us to know that change is coming. The farmers are beginning to become more a part of the social fabric of the community. How so?

Believe it or not, last September (2000) the Ku Klux Klan announced it was holding a rally. It would happen on market day downtown where the farmerís market assembles. When a union of churches, civil rights and commerce groups formed to stage an alternative rally at the other end of town, the farmers joined in. No media covered the KKK event, only the alternative "positive coalition" got coverage. Thom said the farmers have never felt so much a part of their community, embraced, included, and committed to their place. He has great hope that, from this new beginning will grow broader alliances among the food growers and the food-eating public in Carlisle, PA. Thom said, "The market has become part of the social conscience of the community."

The Big News: Dominion from Gene to Table

Now this small story is not especially big news in the world of how we set our global communion table and distribute the Creatorís daily bread and, after all, Thomís story envisions a new community still hoped for and mostly yet unseen. "More small farmers connecting with their local community and more local families eating local food" Ėsounds like small potatoes. 

We spent a lot of time at our Advocacy Week events pondering the big news: Five or six transnational companies, mostly processors, merchandisers, and supermarket chains who now own our daily bread and control access to the bounteous table. Itís big. Names like Cargill, ConAgra, IBP, and Tyson dominate every food category. Phillip Morris gets a dime of every dollar Americans pay for food and they bought Nabisco last summer (2000).

 While traveling Pennsylvania we got word Tyson had just bought IBP (later it was discovered that the buy-out did not take place, this just portrays the volatility of these food giants). Because of their immense holdings, these corporations are capable of controlling the world's food system. They also work in concert with each other and are vertically integrated, meaning they own everything from the patents on the genes of the plants and animals we eat to the most-sought-after space on the big chain supermarket shelves and all the inputs, transportation and processing in between. 

For instance, Monsanto owns the patent on "Round-up Ready" soybeans. In alliance with them, Cargill is the only company who will buy the beans from the growers. The beans go to fatten Cargillís beef at Cargillís own feed lots. The beef are slaughtered and packed by Excel (Cargillís beef processing company) in packages ready to go right into the meat case at Kroger, the biggest supermarket chain in the US. Kroger has a long-term contract with Cargill to sell only Excel meat. The big news is the seamless "gene to table" dominion vertical integration allows. Increasingly farmers donít ever own the crops or livestock they raise. 

They serve the empire. The newest big news is that, whereas as late as 1997 the transnational (TNC) processors controlled our food system, now the retailers are calling the shots. Since 1997, when the top 5 supermarket chains in the country controlled 24% of the retail food market, there have been massive buyouts. In 2001, the top 5 do almost half the sales. Kroger, Wal-Mart, Albertsonís, Safeway and Ahold USA (Ahold USA owns Giant foods stores) are soon to be the only supermarket games in town. 

They now make more money selling their shelf space (slotting fees) than they do selling food. They control the TNC processors by these fees and the reduced competition for their store shelves. Whatís more, all across this country, while we have more families hungry, these top 5 retailers close down their stores in low-income neighborhoods in order to build more profitable ones in the suburbs. In Gettysburg, where our advocacy week began, a Giant supermarket (of Ahold USA) recently closed its downtown store to build on the outskirts of town. From there to Washington, D.C. we heard stories of this "supermarket flight" stranding the poor to the higher priced and lower quality fast and convenience store food.

Relationships of Common Wealth

Why is this big news? The prophet Isaiah said it: "How sad it is when you add house to house and field to field until there is no room and you dwell all alone in the midst of the land." And the prophet Nehemiah said it for the small landowners of his time: "We have mortgaged our fields, our vineyards, ourselves...and it is not in our power to help it for others own our land." 

The conglomerization of ownership and concentration of power has shifted the focus of our food economy from the value of community to the value of stockholder shares. Relationships that once provided for the common wealth have been broken. No longer does local grain milling, baking and cheese making, canning and meat processing add value to local produce and keep food dollars circulating to bless our communities. 

We export our value. No longer is local agriculture enhanced by feeding people in local institutions, in our nursing homes, schools, prisons, or hospitals. No longer do locally-owned grocery stores foster loyalty to local produce and local brands and feed the most hungry. No longer do farmers and those who eat have any conscientious knowledge of one another. No longer do our communities know how to feed the wealthiest among us, let alone the poor. While preparing for our event in Washington, D.C., a food system study was released showing that 90% of the fresh produce consumed in the Mid-Atlantic states is grown outside the region.

There is great loneliness. It is communally sad around the Lordís Table. It isnít only the farmer who has mortgaged his or her means of production and conscience. It devalues us all.

The Sabbath Comes

But we see the Sabbath coming. A quiet Jubilee has arrived. Thatís what makes small stories like Thomís so essential. They preserve a remnant of hope just when it seems we have no power to help this business as usual. After Thom sat down we split the crowd into several smaller working groups.

 Each was simply to brainstorm the possibilities for bridging one of these breaches in relationship: reconnecting local farmers to local processors, farmers to institutional food services, farmers to emergency food providers, farmers to locally-owned restaurants and groceries, farmerís markets and community supported agriculture. One group emerged with a list of local restaurants that might be open to using local produce. 

A second included 3 members of a local dairy family who were just 5 days away from making their very first batch of "All Jersey" cheese to market locally. They infused their group with the dream of opening a store in Carlisle or Shippensburg, PA, run by a cooperative of local farmers who would sell together. A third group, made up of our orchardist Thom, an environmental studies professor at Dickinson College and a handful of students, left that evening resolved to devote class time and research projects to strategies for persuading the College dining hall and food service to use more locally grown and processed foods.

But Why In the Church?

Most of those who hear of our work will quickly agree there is a need for somebody to do it. But many, especially among the churches, will continue to puzzle as to why the churches are involved. Let me respond to them. I have never been around farmers who so consistently articulated their faith as integral to their way of life as during our advocacy week. 

I think they are glad for the faith community to catch up to them. I said the Sabbath is coming and the Jubilee is here. I know what that means by my own biblical scholarship, but I say it because it was proclaimed by Mary Ann Nolt, a Mennonite, as we stood in her farm field on a field trip to her family dairy. In antiquity, the faith of the community expressed (Leviticus 25) that the land would "keep a Sabbath to the Lord." Fields, orchards and vineyards were to be worked and harvested 6 years then take a Sabbath for all of the seventh. The Sabbath was a time of rest for the land, rejuvenation for a tired out economy, for humans to stop and remember whose name was on the deed. 

The Jubilee was a cancellation of debt, allowing redistribution of the ownership of land and economy---concentration in the hands of a powerful few reformed into broad ownership of the many. In Jubilee the local connections that sustain a community would be repaired. Mary Ann said their farm (Natureís Sunlight Farm, Newville, PA) needed a Sabbath when she and her husband Mark moved on to it 19 years ago. She used words of faith to describe needs of economy. She said they tried doing it like the neighbors do, like their family had been doing for generations, like even the Old Order Amish do. Milk cows are kept in confinement. 

The dairy family maintains barns and silos, sustains the debt-leveraging technology of tractors, cultivators, choppers, blowers and synthetic fertilizers to grow corn year after year on the same ground, to harvest, haul, and fill silos to bring the feed to the herd. They must invest in loaders, lagoons, spreaders, pesticides, and antibiotics to deal with the waste and disease of confinement. 

They tried it for one year and, she said, "It didnít fit." The soil, the animals, their family was leveraged, weary and out of rhythm. Now the silos and confinement barns stand empty. Most of the big technologies are gone and so is the debt! They planted the corn ground to pasture. Now they rotate the herd across the land with movable fencing. The cows graze one small paddock for a day and then theyíre moved. They eat the grass down just enough to invigorate its growth. The cows save the farmer the cost of transporting the feed to them and they spread their own fertility back over the land. The Noltís have added chickens to their farm economy. 

e chickens are turned into each grass paddock 4 or 5 days after the cows leave--just enough time for the larvae to hatch out of the fly eggs in the manure so the chickens can feed on them. They consume 30% less manufactured feed in this rotation. Whatís more, where we tend to "dwell all alone" in our globalized food system these folks are reshaping the neighborhood. They cooperate with Wilmer and Arlene Newswanger who own a farm down the road.

 Both market "pasture-raised" chickens but they share the plucking and processing equipment located at Wilmer and Arleneís farm. Mark and Mary Ann market raw milk--Wilmer and Arlene market cheese. Wilmer and Arlene have re-linked local agriculture with a local institution. Last year they sold cheese, 500 pounds of beets and carrots and 1,000 pounds of potatoes to a local school for mentally and physically challenged kids. The kids also visit the farm as a part of their education. So you see there is a Sabbath settling there.

Discerning the Body in Our Eating and Drinking

In I Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes: "When we eat and drink without discerning the Body, we eat and drink judgment on ourselves." I am so grateful to live in a time when people are paying more and more attention to the impact of our eating and drinking on the Body of humanity and the Body of Creation. 

All around us we can see the destructive judgment of the globalizing system, yet, smack dab in the midst, a different way of structuring our eating and drinking promises to bless the world. We are moving from agriculture pandered by corporate power to agriculture supported by community.

In many ways the emerging movement called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is the model of our faith and source of our hope. In recent years a few thousand CSA farms have appeared in our country. Typically these CSAs are groups of citizens organizing to buy fresh produce directly from a local farm. 

They pay the total cost at the beginning of the season and, in return, receive a box (or share) of produce weekly for 20-30 weeks and there is the "value-added" addition of relationship to a farm family and their land. The customers share the risk of the season with the farmers and provide the early cash flow that often keeps the farm from going into debt to stay in business. It is the Jubilee in our time.

Our "Local Foods--Local Farms" week began and ended with Community Supported Agriculture. Our first event was held at St. James Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Gettysburg where more than a dozen church families have joined a CSA. It is a ministry the church calls "Congregation Supported Agriculture" (CSA). Our last event was held in Hinkletown, PA (just outside of Lancaster) at the Mennonite Fellowship where several members of another church witnessed to the CSA they support. It was exciting to hear how that CSA, whose lands are completely surrounded now by new housing developments, can survive because the community is invested in its future. It takes all of us.

ut it always takes a few who stick out their necks.

I want to honor my good friends Jon and Suse Greenstone of St. James Lutheran Church and Just Community Food Systems in this regard. Husband and wife and very different from each other, they both are persons of persevering faith and organizers extraordinaire. You would not be hearing this story without them. 

I was a guest in their network. They made me spend a day with them at the Capitol in Harrisburg, PA lobbying for the State to budget more money for a program that allows low-income families and seniors to use their food coupons at farmerís markets and CSAs. They and their colleagues have organized gardens in baby swimming pools on the apartment roofs of the poor in Washington, D.C., community gardens in the ghettos of Harrisburg, and a prison garden near Gettysburg. In Chambersburg they support an evolving Farmerís Market with access to low-income families who lost yet another grocery store in their community. 

The Greenstoneís are the ones who pioneered the involvement of church families in the CSA at their own St. James Lutheran Church. In solidarity with those they serve, they survive on next to nothing and the graciousness of their community. If you still have questions about this work as prerogative of the churches, follow them around for a week as I have.

 To them these matters are moral ones. I suspect if you asked them why they do this theyíd tell you they believe in God and follow Jesusí teachings, so what else would they do? Simply. As we traveled place to place in a little old pickup filled to the top of the canopy with all kinds of local produce, projection equipment, hand-outs and my guitar, Jon was always quoting scripture. His favorite verse is another from Isaiah: "You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in." If youíve been paying attention, all of this work is about that. One of Jonís favorite stories is one he passes on from Alfred Smith, the manager of a farmerís market that assembles weekly in an impoverished neighborhood in DC. 

This market manager says one of the most amazing things about the market is the dozens and dozens of canes that people "accidentally" leave there. Jon wondered for a long time about this strange phenomena, until he realized the canes were a sign of "breaches repaired and streets restored in the inner city." The truth is revealed when you hear Al Smithís explanation, "The market has become such an important gathering place for the community. Many elders come to it --walking with their canes.

 As they meet old friends they get so engrossed in the conversation and communion of the moment that their canes are forgotten and, it seems, become obsolete!" In a fragmented world farmers and sacred food can restore the integrity of our vast communion table and make every supper to be again the Lordís Supper . . . discerning justice and goodness with every bite. Can you hear this and not be involved?


The Rev. John Pitney lives and works with his wife, The Rev. Debbie Pitney (who is the lead minister at First United Methodist Church, Eugene, Oregon). Their son Joel is an Environmental Studies major at Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, and daughter Erin is studying to be a math teacher at Linfield College. You can write to the Rev. John Pitney at:

1243 Melvina Way, Eugene, OR 97404 or email at: compost@cyberis.net

* John has two albums of creation restoring and inspiring music along with accompanying study materials on earth stewardship and the theology of land, food, and community building. His two albums are entitled: A Home Like This and Walk Lightly On the Earth.

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