Friday, October 22, 2021

Kernza's Perennial Potential

Kernza® has been in development for decades and still has some progress left to be made in yield, but it shows real promise as a perennial grain. To be clear, this is humanity's first perennial grain. With deep roots it stores carbon away while holding the soil back from erosion. A market for the grain is in its early stage, so hopefully in the next couple of decades it will become an attractive alternative to annual grain crops.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Chestnuts as a Viable Farm Product

via Wikimedia Commons
The first time I ever had chestnuts, so far as I can recall, was just a couple of months ago. I saw them for sale at a local supermarket and picked up a couple of packs. At first I found them off-putting, but once I acquired the taste they were practically addictive. In terms of an agroforestry crop they are a pretty solid option, as you can hear in the audio below from Nebraska Public Media. Greg Heindselman, a chestnut farmer from the northeast Missouri town of Lewistown, Missouri, is interviewed for the report, and suggests that as little as five acres is plenty for a good operation. I'm assuming that means as part of a diverse portfolio of farm products. Here's how the article puts it:

“In a lean year, if you only have 1,000 pounds per acre, that figures right around $6,000 an acre. Now, granted, not all of that is profit,” he said. “That’s still a whole lot better than I can do in grain.”

While the future or chestnut growing in the Midwest appears bright, it’s not all Christmas carols and tasty recipes.

“Growing chestnuts is hard work. It’s labor-intensive, and you always have something to do, almost year-round,” Heindselman said. “But it’s still worth it. It’s a great way to farm.”

It's also worth noting that the professor of my first agroforestry course, Dr. Mike Gold, was also interviewed for this report. 

If I ever have say over what goes onto some farmland, chestnuts will be at the very top of the list. 

'Tremendous Demand' Awaits Chestnuts Grown in Midwest

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Greg Judy on Growing Shiitake Mushrooms

Greg Judy, a central Missouri 'regenerative rancher,' is known for his commitment to taking care of the land and making a good living through sustainable agroforestry practices. He also keeps a very active YouTube channel. Among his activities is production of shiitake mushrooms, though it's not a major part of his farm's overall operations. This is a topic I find particularly interesting because I've been eyeing a recently fallen tree for inoculation, and because mushrooms are an excellent way to deal productively and naturally with 'waste' lumber. 

In this first video from 2019, Greg shows how he's set up for growing mushrooms. Some good information there. 

More recently (2021) Greg and his wife Jan provided this update on their bumper crop. 

You don't have to have a lot of land to grow mushrooms, and without sunlight as a requirement it opens it up to almost everyone who wants to give it a try. Maybe not shiitake in logs, but something

Friday, October 15, 2021

What If QAnon and Trumpism is the Result of a Biological, Physiological Problem?

In an article for the San Francisco Chronicle (paywall), Nanette Asimov explains some of what we know about the lingering effects on the brain that COVID-19 can have in some cases. The more sensational account in her article details a man's descent into a religious psychosis, and has gotten me thinking. Here's the relevant portion:

A 30-year-old Connecticut man provides one clue.

His story, co-written by Pleasure of UCSF, was posted in August. Within days of getting a fever and a COVID diagnosis, the man came to believe a religious rapture was imminent and thought he was speaking with dead relatives. He kicked down a door. He shoved his mother. He was hospitalized, but discharged after doctors found no reason for his sudden psychosis. He was back in less than two weeks, his face expressionless and his speech and thinking dulled.

A blood test identified high levels of two proteins, ferritin and D-dimer, hinting at a culprit: systemic inflammation.

That led his doctors to suspect the coronavirus had triggered the inflammation, which caused an immune response that, instead of controlling the infection, “turned into a problem of its own,” Pleasure said. In this case, psychosis.

So doctors at Yale New Haven Hospital chose a treatment typically aimed at autoimmune diseases, and infused the man with intravenous immunoglobulin. Made of purified antibodies from thousands of people, it’s believed to work by swamping out abnormal antibodies.

The man’s delusions vanished. He returned to work and has remained healthy.

It's pretty dramatic when someone believes they're seeing dead people and that the apocalypse is upon us. However, it isn't that unusual. Anyone who's worked with homeless people can tell you that there are always a few who have such ideas. Mental illness can often be a reason—but by no means the only one—for people to be on the streets. 

Consider, though, that we often deal with such folks on a regular basis who are perfectly functional in society and also believe that spirits are among us and/or that the end times are imminent. To our shame in the United States we have a significant number of people who believe that there is a secret ring of pedophile Democrats who are trying to rule the world from behind the scenes. These people work, study, raise children, vote, and do everything else with some degree of what might be viewed as 'normalcy.' And yet they have ideas completely out of touch with the real world.

What if it's biological? What if, like the man in Asimov's article, something is going on physically in the brains of people like these? Certainly it must be the case with the more extreme examples. Those who declare themselves to be prophets and think they see visions must have something unusual going on physiologically. What if our friends, family, and neighbors with really out there ideas don't just reason poorly, but actually have an untreated affliction of a biological nature?

This idea has me rethinking my ways. I'm not very charitable or compassionate towards anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. They are a menace to society. And yet, maybe they can't help it. Perhaps it's not just their software that has an issue, but rather the hardware is faulty. 

There's little to be done about it. Better education on mental health issues and greater efforts toward destigmatizing treatment would help, to be sure. Otherwise, we simply have to do our best to bring them along in a way that won't put the rest of us at risk. For all I know, I could suffer some sort of viral infection or other imbalance in my system and end up with a head full of notions that don't connect to reality. In my case, I hope that if it came to that some treatment would be available, and family concerned enough about me, to be restored to a healthy life, as seemingly was the case of the man described above. I would want compassion for myself, so why should I deny it to others?

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Marketing Agroforestry Products

An assumption exists “that the value of the production systems will be enough to convince people to adopt agroforestry” (Garrett, 2021). That’s rather naive, to put it lightly. Just having good systems will not encourage adoption. On the one hand farmers need to be shown the benefits, and on the other markets need to exist. When a market for a type of product is created it exerts a ‘pull’ on producers to adopt the practices and products involved. Without market opportunities, farmers are not going to want to adopt sustainable agriculture and agroforestry practices. “The ultimate purpose of marketing is to understand customer’s needs, desires, and motivations” (Garrett, 2021). Thus, marketing is essential for the future success of agroforestry.

Some market trends favor the adoption of agroforestry practices. There’s a move towards renewables due to concerns about dependence on foreign oil, a growing interest in organic and locally grown foods, environmental issues to be addressed, and the potential for direct marketing offered through the internet and social media (Garrett, 2021). Demand for biofuel has created a commodities boom for corn and soybeans, and it’s not farfetched to see the same potential for using cellulosic feedstock (from perennial grasses and trees) for the same purpose.

Consumers are increasingly concerned about the pollution and environmental harm done through industrial agriculture practices, and worries over food quality have also contributed to new interest in sustainable agriculture practices. With food quality in particular there is a direct link to consumers favoring locally grown products. A belief exists that local products will be of better quality and possibly safer. Remarkably, farmer’s markets have proliferated nationwide by 396% since 1994, demonstrating something of the scope of interest among consumers in locally-grown products.

One of the defining differences between traditional agriculture and agroforestry is the concept of ‘productive conservation.’ Whereas farm conservation has historically involved the setting aside of land for wildlife and left unproductive, productive conservation entails taking care of the land in ways that benefit flora, fauna, and soil health while also producing saleable goods. These can include edibles like berries or mushrooms, herbal medicines, wood products, fiber, mulch, and even recreation in the form of fishing and hunting (Garrett, 2021). “Agroforestry enterprises often produce niche products for markets about which little is known” (Garrett, 2021). That being the case, effort must be made to engage in market analysis in order to identify what products consumers want, and define that target consumer demographic.

There are some barriers to entry for smaller operations. These can include economies of scale, capital requirements, access to distribution channels, product differentiation, and industry competition. When the possibility of selling carrots grown in the state of New York was first being explored it seemed like a natural fit. As it turned out, existing legislation and administrative rules favored four big distributors, as they were able to offer items of the right quality for the best price. They had scale figured out, and were able to deliver carrots from California for less that those found in-state. There were also issues with the New York carrots not being of the same quality as out-of-state carrots. That conundrum was solved through trial-and-error with the product and some creative writing around product requirements (Severson, 2007).

At the same time, consumers aren’t just interested in quality and price, but also the company behind it and the story. Thus it can be best for new agroforestry operations to start small and really create a compelling narrative. This is because “...niche product markets are based more on trust and authenticity” (Garrett, 2021). An example of this comes from Shepherd Farms, a producer of pecans that utilizes alley cropping.

Shepherd Farms operates a seasonal store where customers can view the farm and its processing facility. These experiences connect customers to the farm. Shepherd believes that giving his customers a positive, memorable experience does more than encourage repeat visits - it strengthens the reputation of the farm and its brand. (Lim, 2021)

Through the store, Shepherd Farms is creating an experience and connection with consumers that can develop into brand loyalty

A good marketing strategy depends on addressing the competitive marketplace and development/delivery of products to consumers. This can happen through cost leadership strategies, differentiation strategies, and/or a focus strategy. On the product strategy side, the “most common marketing strategy for farmers producing agroforestry products is product differentiation to appeal to a focused group of consumers” (Garrett, 2021). In the case of Oregon farmers and ranchers this has meant a bridge of sorts across a political divide. While the producers are often conservative Republicans, their consumers tend to be liberal Democrats (Dundas 6).

Crunch Pak found its own niche market by serving a commonplace fruit in a unique way. Noting research that indicates people eat more apples if offered by the slice, they found a way to keep apple slices from browning without making them soggy and began packaging and selling them. Taking something that already exists and putting a new spin on it, providing it in a friendlier way, can create new opportunities in established markets (Wolfe, 2009).

Pricing also needs to be a consideration, as it is more complex for agroforestry operations than for producers selling in the commodities market. In the latter, producers accept the going rate for their product. There’s really no negotiation. In agroforestry and other permaculture practices the price will depend on factors involving the real cost of production and distribution, meaning that cost to produce and market forces will need to be analyzed to set an appropriate price (Garrett, 2021).

Agroforestry producers will also have to work on promoting their products. This can entail advertising in print, on air, and via the internet. Trips to festivals and farmers markets can get the word out about products, as will offering free samples at events. The language used in promotion matters too. Terms like ‘green,’ ‘locally-grown,’ and ‘farm fresh’ are among those consumers find appealing (Garrett, 2021). Here’s an example of good social media use by Marie Harnois of Passamaquoddy Maple, a native-owned operation.

Passamaquoddy Maple maintains an active presence on Facebook. Harnois found that consumers engage more with personal content, such as sharing daily work activities. This content highlights the values they share with customers. They also use data from Google and Facebook to curate content and photos. Passamaquoddy Maple maintains a website for online sales. (Lim, 2021)

As we’ve seen, producers engaging in agroforestry and regenerative agriculture practices need to be more ‘scrappy’ than farms operating in the commodities market. Commodities markets have infrastructure in place that reduces risk and standardizes processes in such a way that risk inherent in marketing is greatly reduced. This holds true in timber markets as well (Garrett, 2021). Creative means of promoting agroforestry-derived products must be identified and employed, often going directly to stores and consumers and cutting out the middleman. Marketing cannot be an afterthought, but rather baked into the life of the small agroforestry enterprise, inviting people into an ethos and a story that will keep them talking to others and coming back for more.


Garrett, H. E. (2021). North American Agroforestry: An Integrated Science and Practice (3rd ed.). American Society of Agronomy.

Lim, M. (2021, May). Marketing Agroforestry Products: Lessons from Producers. Lincoln; USDA National Agroforestry Center.

Severson, K. (2007, October 17). Local Carrots With a Side of Red Tape. The New York Times. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from

Wolfe, S. (2009, January 30). Crunch Pak: Convenient, Healthy Snacking. Digital Magazine.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Glimpse of Forest Farming

Stesha Warren is a classmate of mine in my first-ever agroforestry course at the University of Missouri. She and her husband Jeremy are first generation forest farmers, and while the video below is from their first year really in the business a few years ago, it's a lovely introduction to what they do. I aim to discuss forest farming more here in the future, as it's an agroforestry practice that really appeals to me. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Green Wall for China

1934 through 1936 were years of drought in the US Great Plains region. Land that had been prairie for thousands of years had been put to the plow for the first time a few decades prior, and soil that had held firm under deeply rooted plants was swept up into the atmosphere. It got so bad that the dust reached as far as Washington, DC. Something that no doubt helped bring about legislation mandating conservation efforts. This year (2021) China has experienced intense sandstorms that have reached Beijing for the first time in 6 years. Whether desertification in this case is due to agriculture, climate change, or other causes, there is increased concern in that country for holding back the desert.

In the following video the story of one man is highlighted, with his decades-long struggle to re-green his corner of the world. It's going to take a lot more than such private efforts to address the issue, but it's at least a start and a shining example of what's possible. 

Monday, October 11, 2021

More Than a Little Girl's Dream

On the face of it the report below is a cute human interest story about a suburban 8 year old girl's dream of someday becoming a farmer. It's certainly that, but it also involves 'a second generation farm, going on a third.' Now that interested me. I grew up on a farm an always imagined that once a generation left farming behind, that was it for them. I've learned that's certainly not the case, with plenty of people at farmer's markets who had no recent ancestors on the farm selling their products. While I'm not certain dairy is the best industry to be in, I like hearing about people making a go of it setting a new family farm tradition.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A Jordanian Architect Bringing a Green Oasis to Urban Amman

Deema Assaf worked for ten years as an architect before getting involved in urban forestry. It was while working on a project in 2017 that she learned of Jordan's natural topography and ecology, and from there she partnered with the Japanese environmentalist Nochi Motoharu to restore some green to Amman. To do so, they employed the Miyawaki method, which involves planting native species in close proximity so that they can grow more quickly in a protective environment. Apparently, it works.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Further Consideration of Riparian Forest Buffers

A few posts back I wrote about riparian forest buffers (RFB), and in retrospect I feel certain I overstated a concern.  It is true that RFBs become wildlife cover, and some of that wildlife will be of a sort that might get into crops. However, I've realized that this is true of any patch of woods on a farm. Windbreaks, living barns, silvopasture, and so forth all provide shelter for potential pests. They also function as part of a living ecosystem and bring more positives than negatives to farmland. And, as I noted in that earlier post, hunting leases can provide a very modest extra source of revenue while keeping the wildlife under some control. 

Here's a video showing off an RFB that was created with a grant from Patagonia Burlington. It gives a good idea of what this agroforestry practice is about. 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Salting of Fields and Forests

Climate change deniers don't think they see the results of the environmental damage that's being done. Or, they blame it on something else. What I'm hearing often now is that "the climate's changed many times." That last one is true, although it's never been on such a large scale, caused by human activity, and so fast. The consequences of our inability to change our ways won't wipe out our species, but it's causing a lot of damage long the way.

The impact of climate change isn't coming in a generation or two. It's here right now. One way we're seeing it is in coastal forests and farms along the east coast. In ancient times if someone wanted to be certain an area would remain unpopulated after conquest, it's said that they would spread salt so that crops wouldn't grow. That's what we're collectively doing to ourselves.

First, there are the forests. Along the U.S. east coast we are seeing an expansion of "ghost forests." These are places that as recently as 10 or 15 years ago were healthy woodlands, but now are dead and dying trees. Looking out into the ocean in places you will see dead trees poking out, where once the forest stood. The following video shows the dramatic transformation taking place.

Some would likely see this and respond, "So what? It's just some woodlands. These things have happened a lot over thousands of years. That brings me to my second point, which is about farms.

Farming is a career and a way of life with a rich history in the United States. My paternal family farmed the same land for four generations. There are places here where families go back eight or more generations. That's not to say that each generation is beholden to the past. Yet, for those who choose to follow in those steps, the land is a very personal thing as well as a central source of income. This is their lives and livelihoods. Now, imagine if someone went to a farmer's land and began spreading tons of salt across the fields. Again, this is what we are doing as a people to our fellow humans through our decades of inaction to reduce the impact of climate change. 

I'm convinced we've gone past the point of no return. The global climate is changing. The ocean is rising with the melting of the polar ice caps and the expansion of the warmer water. More frequent hurricanes are pushing water from the high seas further inland than ever before. The forests and farms in the way are dying.

It's possible to save some of the woodland genetics through efforts to plant trees of the species involved further inland. As for the farms, it's either find saltwater tolerant crops and raise them, or set aside the new marshland as paid conservation land. How far any of that can go remains to be seen. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Agroforestry and Food Safety

In my last post I talked about silvopasture practices, which involves balancing trees, livestock, and forage in the same location. One concern that can be raised about this, particularly if the trees are fruit or nut bearing, is the potential risk of having manure in the same environment due to the possibility of food contamination. It's not a simple issue, but Savanna Institute recently shared the video below discussing the situation and ways it can be managed. I thought it would also be worth putting here as well.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Silvopasture Practices and Benefits

In agroforestry, silvopasture refers to the practice of bringing together livestock, forage, and trees in a single system. This is more complex than alley cropping, another agroforestry practice, which only brings together the elements of crops and trees. This isn’t simply the colocation of animals, plants, and trees, in that there is intentionality about silvopasture (Garrett, 2021). The three components are intended to be mutually beneficial (Judy, 2018). There are advantages and points of concern around this practice as well, which I will discuss here.

Before we can discuss what silvopasture is, we have to eliminate what it is not. Fully one-fifth of forested land in the United States is used for grazing. While it is a common practice in many parts of the United States for livestock to be set to graze on wooded public or private land (Garrett, 2021), simply having animals in an area with both forage and trees does not constitute silvopasture as a practice. Woodland pasture can be woodlots, areas with windbreaks, or non-industrial forests, and unlike in silvopasture there isn’t particular concern or attention paid to the health of the soil, care of the trees, or quality of forage (Orefice & Carroll, 2017).

There is a distinction to be made between silvopastoralism and silvopasture practices. The former is a broader category that includes both silvopasture and integrated forest grazing. The latter involves livestock being used as part of a plan to manage understory growth, harvesting native plants in order to improve the environment long-term (Garrett, 2021).

Silvopasture, on the other hand, is an interdisciplinary approach which seeks to make use of woodlands, forage, and livestock with a view towards profit, while also being concerned about the quality of the environment. Efforts are made in the design and implementation of silvopasture systems to ensure that the assortment of organisms involved can work together harmoniously (Garrett, 2021). It is possible, for example, for nitrogen-fixing plants like clover to enrich the quality of the soil for itself and also for other plants (facilitation), while walnut trees in an area release allelopathic chemicals which deter many other types of plants and trees from growing nearby (competition).

Silvopasture can put to good use land that would otherwise remain unproductive, such as rocky, sandy, damp, and hilly properties that aren’t fit for commercial commodity crops. At the same time, otherwise good land can be spoiled through incorrect grazing practices, harming trees and degrading soil (Garrett, 2021) However, there can be significant advantages to implementing a well-designed and implemented silvopasture practice, resulting in better protection of soil health and a more steady source of income (Judy, 2018).

Aside from land improvement benefits, the presence of trees that can provide shade and shelter can be beneficial to livestock. In inclement weather the trees can serve as a windbreak, and in intense heat they offer shade. In both situations the overall stress on the animal is reduced, lowering calorie burn and generally keeping them in a better state (Orefice & Carroll, 2017). There can also be a benefit to forage from the presence of trees, something I’ll discuss further below.

As I indicated above, more management is required in designing and implementing a silvopasture system than in traditional woodland pasture practices. Perhaps offsetting the increased effort is the possibility of silvopasture systems needing fewer external inputs, such as fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. In this case costs can be lower and there will be less dependence on outside suppliers . A mostly self-sustaining system can be realized.

Having such a system in place makes it possible to have a continuous supply of marketable products. Trees can produce nuts, for example, and of course cattle are themselves of value (Garrett, 2021). With a broader portfolio of product in a more sustainable system, risk can be reduce. Instead of banking on a single crop or the sale of livestock there can be a mix of products, providing some security. Traditional commodity crops grown in a monoculture can be considerably more susceptible to disease, infestations, and adverse weather conditions than a silvopasture system would be (Judy, 2018).

Two essential traits of a silvopasture practice are active management of tree density and shade, and careful attention to types of livestock and timing in order to maintain soil health and forage quality. Everything from root health to length of exposure to foraging animal, to the availability of light passing through the tree canopy need to be considered and reviewed on a regular basis (Orefice & Carroll, 2017).

As for initiating a silvopasture practice, there are two general approaches. In one, existing woods, such as woodlots, can be thinned. This is the fastest means to starting with silvopasture, but it requires the presence of mature trees to begin with. On established grasslands the longer route must be taken, which involves planting and protecting trees until they are of sufficient size to not be harmed by occasional contact with livestock (Judy, 2018). On this point some caution is required. Even in silvopasture systems with mature trees the animal presence must be monitored. While livestock are both “the product and the management tool,”, some types of livestock, such as goats and horses, can strip bark and injure root systems (Garrett, 2021).

When starting with an existing stand of trees some thinning may be required. Gary Judy (2018) suggests looking for the tree with the best trunk and crown and then harvesting the trees nearby, leaving it with less competition and the soil and forage more access to sun and rain.

On the other hand, when starting with a more-or-less ‘blank slate’ with an open field the possible interactions between trees and plants must be considered up front. If trees are planted into an existing pasture as-is, complete with grass and weeds, the competition for resources can potentially stunt the growth of the trees. Better instead to clear the field and plant trees and forage plants at the same time, and subsequently keeping weed growth down for the benefit of the trees (Garrett, 2021).

Shaded grass contains less lignin than that found in open fields. Lignin is indigestible for livestock, making shade-grown grass better forage (Judy, 2018). While forage grown in shade can be high quality, it is low quantity when compared to grass in open pastures (Ford et al., 2017). What makes the difference in a silvopasture system with regard to quantity and quality of forage yield is the sum of what takes place over the course of a year. High quality forage from shady areas, high quantity forage from sunny locations, and the tree by-products themselves (leaves, seed pods, etc) work together to provide a sustainable source of nutrition for livestock (Jose & Dollinger, 2019).

With good system design, implementation, and management a sustainable silvopasture system can be put into place. It may be more labor intensive, but requires fewer external inputs, potentially reducing cost. Livestock serve as weed control and process through digestion materials that are then returned to the land in the form of dung and urine. While adoption has been slow (Garrett, 2021), this practice is compatible with other traditional farming methods and provides benefits that will surely attract more attention in the future.


Ford, M. M., Zamora, D. S., Current, D., Magner, J., Wyatt, G., Walter, W. D., & Vaughan, S.
(2017). Impact of managed woodland grazing on forage quantity, quality and livestock
performance: The potential for Silvopasture in central Minnesota, USA. Agroforestry
Systems, 93(1), 67–79.

Garrett, H. E. (2021). North American Agroforestry: An Integrated Science and Practice (3rd
ed.). American Society of Agronomy.

Jose, S., & Dollinger, J. (2019). Silvopasture: A Sustainable Livestock Production System.
Agroforestry Systems, 93(1), 1–9.

Judy, G. (2018, March). The Benefits Silvopasture Provides for Your Farm. Stockman Grass

Lathrop, W., & Freking, B. (2018, July 24). Management Intensive Grazing. Kerr Center.
Retrieved September 22, 2021, from

Orefice, J. N., & Carroll, J. (2017). Silvopasture—it's not a load of manure: Differentiating between Silvopasture and wooded livestock paddocks in the northeastern United States. Journal of Forestry, 115(1), 71–72.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Status of the Great Green Wall in Two African Nations

The Great Green Wall in an initiative of the African Union to draw a green line across the continent to hold back the Sahara. Trees and other plants are set out in order to not only stop desertification, but hopefully even reverse it. The nations involved are Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan. In the excellent report below via France 24 we are brought up to speed on the progress and challenges of this effort in two of those countries. It's a mixed bag. Local people participating but also thieves wreaking havoc. This project is crucial for the well-being of people in the region and for the health of the local and global environment. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A Very Basic Intro to Riparian Forest Buffers

An ephemeral creek in northeastern Missouri that could benefit from a riparian forest buffer. (via Adam Gonnerman CC BY 4.0)
Our creeks and streams could use more care. With that could also come some financial benefits as well. 

Growing up in the landlocked state of Missouri, all of my experience with bodies of water involved lakes, ponds, creeks, and (to a limited extent) rivers. Before my parents had air conditioning installed when I was a teenager it was customary for my mother, brothers, and I to go to the local public lake to swim almost every summer afternoon. It was the only way to really cool off. Year round I had access to a pond and a creek, though neither was for swimming. 

The creek I named 'Acorn Creek'  ran from farm to farm through pasture and woodlands before emptying into the Long Branch creek. It turns out that 'my' stream doesn't have an official name recorded anywhere. Acorn Creek begins just before a piece of property that my late father purchased in the mid-1990s. The people before him had used the creek as a dump, with plastic, glass, and even large appliances lingering up and down the stream. 

It wasn't just dumping that troubled that creek. The agricultural use around it led to good soil being washed away in it, along with fertilizer and pesticides. Still, it passed through enough woodland areas along the way to still be able to support life. It's woody perennials along with grasses and forbs that made the difference. Warm season grasses put in deep roots, holding the soil in place and filtering the water that passes through it. The same goes for trees. It's not perfect, but it leads to the stream running clear most of the way to Long Branch. 

Now, imagine making that happen intentionally. Setting aside creeks and a strip of land on either side for a planned intervention. If the sides are too steep they can be reinforced with large stones. Otherwise in layers radiating out from either side of a creek or stream there can be natural growth, trees, shrubs, forbs, and warm season grasses. No cold season grasses because they don't tend to put down as deep and reliable roots. A fence could keep out any livestock, with water being provided to them by other means. In reality, I've never really seen farmers where I'm from relying on direct access to streams to water their livestock. Usually there's a well system in place with waterers installed around the pasture. 

This mixture of woody perennials with grasses and forbs is referred to as a riparian forest buffer. They can be very beneficial for the environment, but a few objections could be raised by landowners. I'm not going to try to list them all, but here are a couple that seem particularly important to me.

First, buffers like this take land out of agricultural production. That's true enough, since crops like corn and soybeans can't be included in the buffer zone. On the other hand, the buffer itself can be productive. Nut trees can be planted, for example, providing a crop in addition to whatever else is raised on the property. Having a riparian buffer doesn't have to mean that the land is out of use. Rather, it means that the land is being put to different use.

Second, wooded land can attract wildlife, which can be pests for nearby crops. That's also true, although many farms have wooded land without farmers having particular concerns about wildlife. In fact, the wildlife can provide yet another source of income. The owner and family can certainly hunt there in the proper seasons, and the option exists to allow access to others for hunting for a fee. 

There's only so much that a riparian buffer can do. It needs to be maintained over time, though I tend to think that's not a huge demand on time. Further, it only exists where landowners put it in place. Neighboring farms likely won't have a system like this, meaning that the extent of ecological benefits will be limited to land where the buffer exists, except that of course on that land it's helping reduce further damage to the creek structure and water quality. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

The Small Family Farm is a Colonial Concept

The title of this post rankles me, because I grew up on a small family farm. My father was the fourth generation of the family farming the same land. He told me often as I was growing up about the importance of the family farm, and compared the industrialized corporate farm system it's a hell of a lot better on the land and livestock. I want to be absolutely clear that I'm not advocating against small family farms, and wouldn't consider supporting any proposal that would involve the forced transfer of private land in favor of a different system. That said, a recent podcast series and some additional reading has got me considering other systems that could be more just, regenerative, and sustainable than either small, private farms or corporate farming.

In the aforementioned series, which I include here below and can easily be found on Spotify, a Scottish man and his wife talk about the experience of returning to the family farm in the north of Scotland. He went into it with the zeal of a convert, believing in the ideal of the family farm and simply assuming it was the way things have always been. When he mentioned 'colonialism' with regard to his farm and the others in his area I thought he was off his rocker. Then he explained. 

In times past the land in northern Scotland was held as a sort of commons. A time came when enslavement of African people in the British territories was banned, and the government paid huge sums of money to enslavers as 'compensation' for their 'loss.' No regard for the human beings who were enslaved, of course. The Gaelic-speaking Scots were forced off their land as it was acquired with the wealth former enslavers had received, and many of those Scots made their way to the Americas, where they in turn homesteaded on lands that had belonged to indigenous peoples. 

It's ugly, isn't it? White supremacy and base greed is the soup we've all been cooked in. Few hands are clean, and those that are belong to the people most exploited and oppressed of all. 

Sarah Taber explained it well in a 2019 article for New York Magazine:

It’s easy to see how Anglo-Americans could mistake it for normal. Our cultural heritage is one of the few places where this fluke of a farming practice has made multiple appearances. Family farming was a key part of the political economy in ancient Rome, late medieval England, and colonial America. But we keep forgetting something very important about those golden ages of family farming. They all happened after, and only after, horrific depopulation events.

Rome emptied newly conquered lands by selling the original inhabitants into slavery. In England, the Black Death killed so many nobles and serfs that surviving peasants seized their own land and became yeomen — free small farmers who neither answered to a master nor commanded their own servants. Colonial Americans, seeking to recreate English yeoman farming, began a campaign of genocide against indigenous people that has lasted for centuries, and created one of the greatest transfers of land and wealth in history.

In 2019 Chris Newman, a Virginia farmer, wrote a Medium article about his experience farming and dealing with farmers markets. Far from being an idyllic life involving easy sales through such markets, it is in truth a matter of long hours, great sacrifice, and significant cost to participate in farmers markets. He argues that it would be more affordable for him and the other participants in farmers markets to collaborate in setting up their own brick-and-mortar stores. From their, he moves into making a case for cooperative farming. 

Imagine all the producers at that market combining their acreage, expertise, supply chains, and financial resources into a co-op committed to producing food regeneratively, responsibly, and ethically. The results would be astonishing:
    • Costs of production would decrease significantly. Orders of seed, feed, equipment, and supplies would no longer just be in bulk, they’d be at a regional scale. Labor hours would be reduced as dozens of farmers are no longer replicating the same tasks (e.g. purchasing, bookkeeping, inventory, etc.)
    • Marketshare would swell. Owing to lower prices, larger quantities, and more accessible markets, we’d be able to service a much larger segment of the market. Increases in volume would reduce overhead costs, more than offsetting the reduction in each unit’s top-line. (e.g. — we net more money selling 100 chickens to a single restaurant at a 30 percent discount than we do to 100 individuals because that bulk order means we’re not paying for individual storage, transport, potential spoilage, transaction fees, the cost at the point of sale, etc.)
    • Wages and quality of life for farmers would rise in real terms. The confluence of reduced production costs, cooperative labor, and increased market share will mean individual farmers are working less and getting paid more. We’d actually be able to enjoy creature comforts of other industries like evenings and weekends off, PTO, group health insurance, even retirement.
    • The barriers to entry for new farmers would be much lower. New farmers would not have to learn to be entrepreneurs, marketers, agritourism experts, and social media mavens in order to make it work. A farmer could actually make a living as a trade journeyman, just like any other trade, and brand new farmers could be trained by the co-op itself. On a related note…
    • Sustainable farming could be de-gentrified since it would no longer be a “labor of love” only available to people that can afford to work for free or next to nothing (i.e. afford to be exploited, which is a bad thing even if they don’t seem to mind very much). Everyone — people of color in particular — would be able to look at farming as a viable career choice.
    • Farmers could follow their passions instead of diversifying. The co-op has producers of livestock, produce, fruit, mushrooms, grain, dairy, flowers, etc. Ecological diversity is managed at the co-op/landscape level rather than the level of the individual producer, so the latter can focus on what they do best, still make a living, and still operate within an ecologically restorative framework.
    • Farmers could operate at the scale they choose. If someone just wants to grow microgreens in their basement and sell them into the co-op’s single-payer market, so be it. If they want to range a cattle herd followed by sheep and chickens across a few hundred acres leased or owned by the co-op, go for it. The only constraint is that the producer must follow the co-op’s production standards.
The point is, these farmers would no longer be alone. We’d present a united farmer-owned — this is key — interface to the rest of the world — suppliers, customers, landlords, regulators, media, etc. — that, at present, each farmer is left alone to handle. It’s that isolation that makes us weak and ineffective against incredibly well-resourced competition.

We have to evolve if we’re going to survive.

The only kind of contemporary farming I hold we'd be better of without is corporate agriculture. My chief concerns are providing a sustainable supply chain of food to support 7+ billion people on this planet, and doing it justly with regard to people and the land. No model may be perfect, but the best should be sought out. Private family farms, co-ops...whatever works to reach toward fulfilling those goals. 

Here's the podcast series I mentioned above. I very highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Ministry That Includes Agroforestry

As I continue discernment as an aspirant for Unitarian Universalist ministry more clarity is very gradually developing regarding what shape my work might take. Although this Fall I'm not actively in seminary due to a building fire that destroyed my apartment last month (July 2021), I am enrolled in a course in agroforestry through the University of Missouri as a non-degree-seeking student. Class started just this week, and I'm loving the material covered already. We'll see if I still feel the same in a few weeks! 

Having grown up as part of the fifth generation of my paternal side on the farm I spent a lot of time in the fields and woodlands of northeast Missouri. Although traditional farming never appealed to me as a profession, working with growing things certainly did. Now, in what might be the third phase of my life (childhood, young adulthood, middle age, retirement) if I live long enough, I'm finding that the various threads of my proclivities, aptitudes, and life experience are coming together in a new way. 

Early on I wanted to be in ministry, and I was for a time. Then I found my way slowly into project management, working primarily in infrastructure technology for multinational media companies. This is still the field I am in, but as I sort through what it would mean for me to be a UU minister I've found that community development is a key concern, and my lifelong twin loves of gardening and hiking remain. It's only natural that I'm thinking of ways to bring the science and practice of agroforestry to bear on the well-being of communities. 

With that, here's a good, brief intro to what agroforestry is all about. I'm sure I'll be posting a lot more in relation to it here in the future. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

The Overstory (Book Review)

The Overstory by Richard Powers came highly recommended to me, and yet I didn't know what to expect. It's a fascinating read that weaves a love of trees with the histories of people. 

This book confused me at first. For a while it was seemingly scattered short stories or vignettes about people who had nothing to do with one another. Some element of tragedy was present in each. With the book clocking in at 502 pages I became concerned that if it were a book of unrelated short stories it would quickly become tiresome. Fortunately, the stories began to weave together.  

A work of fiction, The Overstory reads like the real-life account of the rise and fall of an 'eco-terrorist group,' as seen mostly through their eyes. I thought of it as a story from an alternate timeline with the same world history but different people and differences in details in the most recent several decades. This isn't speculative fiction, by any means. It's grounded in the facts and observations of the world we have. 

What came through time and again was the wonder of trees, the deep history of forests on this planet, and the brevity of human life...even perhaps the life of our species. We see this all through the eyes of very human, flawed, often quite earnest people. This is the sort of narrative that will remain with me for a while as I continue to process it. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Keep an Eye Out for the Spotted Laternfly

This summer the Spotted Lanternfly (lycorma delicatula) is making its way through New Jersey unimpeded, it would seem. The images to the left were taken by yours truly in two different patches of woodland, and represent the insect in two of its phases of growth. The full set of four phases are illustrated at the bottom of this post. As for why these invasive pests pose a problem, here's what the New Jersey Department of Agriculture has to say: 

Spotted Lanternfly (SLF), Lycorma delicatula, is an invasive planthopper native to China, India, and Vietnam; it is also established in South Korea, Japan and the U.S. It was first discovered in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in Berks County in 2014 and has spread to other counties in PA, as well as the states of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, New York, Connecticut and Ohio. 
This insect has the potential to greatly impact agricultural crops and hardwood trees. SLF feeds on the plant sap of many different plants including grapevines, maples, black walnut, and other important plants in NJ. While it does not harm humans or animals, it can reduce the quality of life for people living in heavily infested areas. 
Why You Should Care 
SLF is a serious invasive pest with a healthy appetite for our plants and it can be a significant nuisance, affecting the quality of life and enjoyment of the outdoors. The spotted lanternfly uses its piercing-sucking mouthpart to feed on sap from over 70 different plant species. It has a strong preference for economically important plants and the feeding damage significantly stresses the plants which can lead to decreased health and potentially death. 
As SLF feeds, the insect excretes honeydew (a sugary substance) which can attract bees, wasps, and other insects. The honeydew also builds up and promotes the growth for sooty mold (fungi), which can cover the plant, forest understories, patio furniture, cars, and anything else found below SLF feeding.

As bad as this seems, I'm hoping that the species already present in North America will prey on SLFs. According to an informal PennLive survey of gardening groups on Facebook last year, some creatures have been observed doing just that.

From hundreds of responses, the No. 1 and 2 reports were of praying mantises seen eating adult lanternflies and garden spiders at least snaring lanternflies in their webs and killing them, if not eating them. 
Others reported yellow jackets, gray catbirds, wheel bugs, hornets, fishing spiders, green frogs, dogs, cats, goldfish, koi and ducks eating the invasive insects. Some chicken owners reported that their birds ate lanternflies, while others said the chickens avoided the insects after one taste.

The simple truth is that there's no way to safely and completely exterminate this species now that it is present in North America. I've taken to killing them as often as I see them, though I know that makes only a minimal difference. One thing that might help is the elimination of Tree of Heaven (ailanthus altissima). This invasive tree species from China is the favored refuge of SLFs. They eat the tree's sap and lay their eggs on it, preferentially. If landowners, both public and private, were to remove this tree from their properties it could potentially help reduce the impact of these pests. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

Walk in the Park: Volunteering and Future Plans

Growing up I spent quite a lot of time in the fields and woodlands of northeast Missouri. After coming to New Jersey in 2005, by way of New Mexico and Brazil before that, I've had little opportunity to soak in the sounds, scents, and scenes of the woods. At the same time I always had green growing things in my home and when the opportunity arose I planted a garden. 

Several months ago I was looking for volunteer opportunities that would get me out into the woods or tending gardens. After having no success with the state or other local programs, all suspended due to COVID, the Parks & Recreation department of Middlesex County, New Jersey got back to me. They were looking for trail walkers to report on issues along the trails, and possibly even effect repairs. It was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, and I opted to regularly check on Thompson Park Conservation Area. here's a bit about from the county website:

The Thompson Park Conservation Area was saved through the cooperative efforts of the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the Township of Monroe and the State of NJ, Green Acres Program. The initial purchase of land from the Bank of China was in July of 2000 and additional properties are continually added to this remarkable area. The series of County land parcels total 925-acres. Combined with the existing 675-acre Thompson Park and 335-acres of adjacent State owned land, the total preserved open space in this part of Monroe Township is nearly 2000 acres. 
The conservation area stretches south from Thompson Park and Schoolhouse Road along the Gravel Hill. It is dominated by heavily wooded forests and lowland swamps along the Manalapan Brook. Parts of the area also continue to support local agriculture, with farmers growing corn and soybeans.

It really is a lovely area. Some of the trails are used more than others, and my favorite to walk just for more quiet is the Gravel Hill Trail. 

With the building fire that destroyed practically everything I own my plans for monitoring the trails have been postponed. This will be a year-round commitment, though, and summer youth corp groups have already cleared and effected repairs in the past couple of months. As soon as I'm settled into a new apartment I intend to acquire the basic tools and equipment and set a schedule for my tours. 

There is slightly more to this than the sense of well-being I experience in the woods. It's true that there I'm able to clear my thoughts by focusing on the sounds of singing birds and rustling leaves. My affection for woodlands and gardening needs a better outlet. Volunteering in this way is one step, and another I will be taking along academic lines. Without giving up on working towards an MDiv, by any means, I am also now enrolled at the University of Missouri for an online course in Agroforestry. While currently I am non-degree seeking, if this goes well and the subject matter works for me I'll apply to enter the Master of Science program to focus on the topic. 

What I want to do is bring together community development, project management, pastoral care, and agroforestry in one ministry. What exactly that will look like remains to be seen, but that's the general shape of it. As I mentioned in my last entry, my desire for biblical studies seems to have gone away completely, so the way has been cleared to shift my focus to something else that I find incredibly meaningful. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

Ignis Invictus

Three weeks ago today, around 1:30 in the afternoon, I had just finished lunch and was sitting back down at my desk. I had been working from home for about a year and a half because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As I thought about the several things I had left to do that day my thoughts also went to my plans for the weekend. Then, the room got very dark. I assumed that a storm was rolling in, but it was so sudden that I got up to look through the blinds out the window. Thick black smoke was rolling by, right up against the side of my apartment building. Then I smelled smoke.

Opening the door to my bedroom to see where the fire was, my cat ran passed me and into my bathroom to hide. In the living room I looked out the sliding glass doors watching for just a moment and angry red-orange flames lapped over the balcony from the apartment below, consuming the plants I had invested so much time in growing. The sunflowers would have bloomed last week if they hadn't burned.

The only word I could say for a few moments was 'FIRE.' It forced its way up from somewhere inside me and came out as a bellow to awaken my 19-year-old son who was sleeping. He'd been working nights for a while and sleeping during the day. I ran to grab the pet carrier, yelled for my son to grab his documents and put on his shoes, and loaded the cat up. I grabbed my own documents in two folders and we ran out of the building. 

The fire department said our place was fully engulfed within 8 minutes of the fire starting.

As I write this we still don't have an official cause. Eyewitnesses say it started on the balcony of the apartment below ours. That's quite a mystery, given that the balconies were made of solid concrete and had metal railings. 

The fire burned our apartment and climbed the outside wall into the attack, where there were no sprinklers. As the afternoon wore on our local fire department was joined by others from neighboring towns. From what I could see the fourth floor was a total loss. During the fire the elevator apparently collapsed, blasting flames out the room and through the first floor. It's my understanding that a few pets died.

My prescription medications were destroyed in the fire and I hadn't taken them yet that day. The doctor's office insisted I had to have an appointment on Monday afternoon to renew them. I went into withdrawal on Saturday, coinciding with the initial shock wearing off, and spent around 4 hours in the emergency room Saturday night. I'll need to find myself a new doctor once things settle down.

For several days my mind seemed to be in a fog, but with the help of my daughter and other good people I managed to sort out next steps. A lot of people donated generously to a GoFundMe campaign that my daughter started, and a number of my co-workers kindly put their resources together and go me a hefty enough amount in Target gift cards to fund replacing my cooking and baking supplies along with some basic countertop appliances.

Only 8 days after the fire I was back to work, happy to have the familiar routine to distract me. 

My son and I have found another apartment that will be available on September 1. In the meantime he is staying with his mother and I have temporary lodgings. The weeks can't pass fast enough. I want my own place again.

The trauma is real. 

My entire library was destroyed. I had built it over the course of 5 years in order to attend seminary. Now it's gone, along with pretty much everything else. That alone was worth thousands of dollars. It's strange how a catastrophic event like this can change one's tastes and preferences. I hadn't expected that at all. Where before I had an intense academic interest in the Bible and planned to do New Testament scholarship, I now have no interest at all in the matter. Consciously I don't feel revolted, in the sense that the loss of the library has made me disinterested, but that must be what's happening subconsciously. To give you and idea, I love sweet iced tea, and so it would be very disorienting to wake up one morning and no longer have any desire to drink it, preferring other beverages. Think of something you love to eat, drink, or do and try to imagine suddenly not caring about it any more. That's where I am, and other interests are quickly taking the now-unoccupied space in my heart.   

The maize and bean lineages I had been working on for a few years now are gone as well. The new apartment will be north-facing and shaded, so my growing options will be limited. I'm thinking I'll switch to fava beans and sweet potatoes (grown in large bags made for the purpose). Someday down the road I may try my hand at raising a variety of gooseberries. My beloved citrus tree in a pot is also gone and I'm now planning on replacing it with evergreens. I'm attempting to clone a Blue Spruce from cuttings, and I expect to buy a Norfolk Island Pine to keep in the apartment after we move in. 

If this had happened earlier in life it would have been devastating enough to derail me for years. Now that I'm on anti-depressants, have a therapist, and don't believe in the supernatural I find that I have the strength to do this. To be clear, I would always have survived and recovered from this sort of trauma. It's a question of how long that would take and how bad things would get before the sun would rise again on my innermost being. 

The fire has not and will not defeat me. Ignis invictus. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Christianity Today Asks: Who Killed Mars Hill?

Christianity Today has produced a new podcast series on what happened at Mars Hill Church that I can't recommend highly enough. If you're interested in the tangle of toxic masculinity, mega church politics, and the general corruption that is evangelicalism in the United States, you definitely want to follow this series.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

SBC Whistleblower Report: Southern Baptist leaders on sexual abuse in their own words

The following was prepared by Phillip Bethancourt and shared by him via Google Docs. It is, in a word, explosive. He includes audio files of Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd speaking that are pretty damning, in my opinion.
June 10, 2021

To: Mike Stone, Ronnie Floyd
CC: Rolland Slade, JD Greear

Mike and Ronnie,

I am writing to you in regard to your public responses to the recently publicized letters from Russell Moore. Ronnie, you said you “do not have the same recollection” of the events. Mike, your video called Moore’s claims “absolutely slanderous,” “ungodly,” and an “outrageous lie.”

I cannot remain quiet in light of your responses, so I am compelled to do something no one would want to do--become a Southern Baptist whistleblower.

Wouldn’t the best way to get to the truth be to hear the two of you in your own words? Your own words actually corroborate the claims in Russell Moore’s letters--the same claims you now suggest are false. I believe that when Southern Baptists hear you in your own words, they will be wise enough to recognize the truth.

Below you will find links to audio clips from two meetings Russell Moore mentions in his letter; our October 8, 2019 meeting in Nashville (in which Ronnie was present along with others), which followed the Caring Well Conference and our May 9, 2019 meeting in Atlanta (in which both of you were present along with others). The brief summaries for each audio clip will help Southern Baptists understand the context of what happened in our conversations.

Nashville Caring Well Conference Debrief | October 8, 2019

In this Caring Well Conference debrief meeting, which included both Ronnie Floyd and Russell Moore, Floyd’s own words corroborate Moore’s recounting of the meeting. As the audio captures Floyd’s pressure tactics, sometimes masked in the form of “I’m just asking questions,” it also reveals troubling statements not previously disclosed to Southern Baptists.

Clip #1 - Ronnie Floyd questions the lack of restrictions on Caring Well Conference speakers

Ronnie Floyd’s question seems to imply that Caring Well conference speakers should have had restrictions on what they said since the Executive Committee financially supported the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group. Russell Moore explains that the reason the ERLC didn’t restrict what speakers say is because “we are not in a criminal conspiracy to cover up what happened.” Note: no Executive Committee funds were used for the Caring Well Conference.

Clip #2 - Ronnie Floyd voices Executive Committee complaints about Rachael Denhollander

Ronnie Floyd’s question raises Executive Committee trustee complaints about how Rachael Denhollander “has come after them” in her Caring Well Conference interview. Russell Moore points out that the ERLC “didn’t script anybody.” And, in reference to the Executive Committee’s mishandling of a survivor’s public abuse disclosure, Moore asserts that the Executive Committee should “not do stupid stuff again.”

Clip #3 - Ronnie Floyd suggests his primary concern is not survivors but to “preserve the base”

Ronnie Floyd says he is “not worried” about what survivors would say because his primary focus is to “preserve the base,” seeming to suggest that his priority on abuse is protecting the SBC. Floyd had already stated that he is hearing threats that some churches may stop their Cooperative Program giving because of the Caring Well Conference. So, it certainly seemed to us in the room that what it meant to “preserve the base” was to protect the money.

Atlanta Meeting on Sexual Abuse | May 9, 2019

This meeting that included Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd intended to finalize action points on sexual abuse for the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham. Their resistance to the immediate formation of a standing credentials committee became a primary point of disagreement. Stone’s own words corroborate Russell Moore’s recounting of our contentious discussion on this subject.

Clip #1 - Mike Stone discloses that the Bylaws Workgroup abandoned pursuit of a Credentials Committee and perceived themselves as victims

In a response to Ronnie Floyd’s question, Mike Stone states the Executive Committee’s Bylaws Workgroup had abandoned plans to create a standing credentials committee in advance of the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting, right as many Southern Baptists were publicly calling for the formation of one. Why? At least part of the reason, Stone suggests, was the “human factor,” which he seems to portray as the fact that the Bylaws Workgroup believed they were true victims in the process, who were “thrown under the bus.”

Clip #2 - Mike Stone suggests approaches like mine to the Credentials Committee are “unseemly”

Near the end of the meeting, we were at a standstill regarding the prospects of a standing Credentials Committee proposal coming forward at the 2019 SBC Annual meeting. Mike Stone had already disclosed that the Bylaws Workgroup had abandoned its pursuit of one. Stone also had insisted during this meeting that a Credentials Committee be delayed at least a year, just as Russell Moore disclosed in his letter. Seeing no other pathway ahead at that point, I noted in the meeting that, if the Executive Committee wouldn’t bring a proposal, I would personally bring a motion from the floor of the convention to pursue a standing Credentials Committee. In Clip #2, Mike Stone uses the exact language Russell Moore referenced in his letter, when Stone calls approaches like this “unseemly.” He also suggested that the Bylaws Workgroup felt “like it has been bullied,” again implying that they were true victims in the process.

Southern Baptists Deserve to Hear You in Your Own Words

It is a difficult decision to become a Southern Baptist whistleblower. But Southern Baptists deserve to hear you in your own words so they can know the truth. That’s why I believe it is necessary to not only give the courtesy of first sharing this information with you directly but also make it available publicly soon.

Some may have questions about the nature of these audio clips. This audio was lawfully captured by me in the one-party consent states of Tennessee and Georgia. It was appropriately captured in a manner consistent with the practice of the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group during major meetings and strategy sessions; real time documentation was often captured to ensure both the accuracy of notes and the clarity of follow up actions. I did not anticipate this audio might ever become necessary in a moment like this.

This audio captures relevant clips, attempting to ensure that nothing is taken out of context. The full audio is not available because it would publicly mention the names or stories of abuse survivors without their consent. However, when a credible third party investigation is launched, I would be willing to cooperate to provide the full audio along with other relevant information.

Southern Baptists are at a crossroads as we head to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville. I don’t know which direction Southern Baptists will choose. But I do believe these ancient words: the truth will set you free. The future of the SBC will only stand if it is built on a foundation of truth.

In Christ,

Phillip Bethancourt
Galatians 4:16

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Seminary Isn't Scary Podcast

When I graduated from high school nearly 3 decades ago the plan was to go into ministry. Had I stayed on the path I'd now have quite a bit of experience in that role, but that wasn't to be. I made some missteps along the way, and one of them was not going to seminary. I completed a Bachelor of Ministry (BMin) degree at Harding University, was ordained the day after graduation, and in just a little over a year was off to Brazil for mission work. In retrospect I see that more time and reflection would have helped heal some personal trauma and prepared my heart for what I was about to do. As a result, I spent only a few short years in Brazil, and was out of full time ministry not long after returning to the states. Last year (2020), while the pandemic was keeping me in relative isolation, I discovered that Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology has precisely the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program that I've been wanting to do. 

The ACU GST MDiv can be done almost entirely online, with only a requirement of 4 separate weeks of intensives on campus over the course of 4 years. What really attracted me were the Hebrew and Greek requirements, something we don't find very often any more at seminaries. If the courses are offered they are often optional, and as someone who continues to maintain a keen interest in the Bible, its interpretation, and its impact on people and society, this matters to me.

Below are the first 7 episodes of a podcast that ACU GST has produced, interviewing different professors and people connected to the seminary about their experiences. If you're considering seminary, whether at ACU or elsewhere, you might find these interesting.

One disclaimer though: although ACU GST is fairly progressive for an evangelical seminary, accepting critical scholarship and not requiring and creedal statement or position from students, it may not be the best place for every Unitarian Universalist. I have classmates from evangelical and mainline Protestant traditions, and the professors show a concern for us thinking clearly and developing as people rather than holding to their beliefs. At the same time, a UU with little or no interest in the Bible and Christianity would be better suited looking to Meadville Lombard Theological School or Starr King School for the Ministry. Both of those are affiliated with Unitarian Universalism. 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Hope for Post-Pandemic Times | Pentecost 2021

"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place."Acts 2:1 NRSV

People gathered for a common purpose can have great power.     

The past year, being one of pandemic and social isolation, has been a rough one for many people. Sickness, hospitalization, and death have been the experience of families around the world. For those who managed to avoid getting sick and who had no one close suffer with the virus, there was still the daily struggle of adapting to life primarily lived indoors. I feel especially for parents of young children who've had to monitor their children to keep them focused on schoolwork while, also working to continue to support their families. As an introvert, 'homebody,' and father of grown children, the circumstances of the past 12+ months didn't post a huge challenge for me personally. I've been able to work and study remotely, and everything I feel I need, I have. And yet, Pentecost has reminded me of a way in which I do miss some gatherings.

The week prior to my first trip to Brazil in 1997 was one spent at a retreat. About 50 or so young Christian young people had signed up and raised money to go to other countries to get a taste of mission work for two months, and I was one of them. The sending organization rented a retreat center and our days that week were spent together in classes, team bonding activities, meals, and more. It was a profoundly spiritual experience, one that got me out of my head and able to connect a little better with my heart, which was going to be essential for the following several weeks living in a country with different customs, cuisine, and language from what I'd always known.

Experiences like that, bringing a sense of heaven on earth, are few and far between, in my experience, and in recent times they've been practically impossible.

Over the past year the world has experienced the first global pandemic since 1918, and 3,464,312 have died as of this writing. Not so bad when compared to the 20th century pandemic, which took the lives of between 20 and 50 million, until you consider that our recent lower numbers are due almost certainly to better medical science, and further reflect on the fact that each of those more than 3 million people were human beings with thoughts, feelings, hopes, and loved ones. I've been fortunate to have lost few that I know, although I had the shock of finding out a couple of weeks ago that my psychiatrist had died of COVID-19. 

In time we'll learn to feel comfortable again with one another in close quarters. At least, so I hope will be the case. Online gatherings have been a useful outlet for social connection, and has opened up possibilities to attend seminars and conferences that previously would have required travel and significant expense. Still, those just aren't and never will be the same as joining in heart, mind, and hand with others to seek what's highest and best. Perhaps, as this Pentecost comes and goes, we're passing through a gateway into new possibilities and a greater appreciation for being with one another. We could use a fresh wind blowing through the world right now, clearing the confusion, cooling tempers, and renewing our lives.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

On Canon

It's common now to refer to whether something really happened in a movie or TV 'universe' as being 'in canon' or 'out of canon.' This comes from the use of the terms 'canon' and 'canonical' in religious usage, referring to writings considered reliable representations of a particular faith. The word 'canon' itself is derived from a word for 'reed,' and was used to refer to a measuring stick. Whether some religious truth-claim was to be believed or not depended on how it measured up to scripture, and so what constituted scripture had to be defined somewhere along the way. 

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, it suddenly had a massive amount of tangled and somewhat incoherent IP on its hands. Here's how they cleaned it up:

As of April 25, 2014, the only previously published materials that are considered canon are the six Star Wars films, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series and film, novels (where they align with what is seen on screen), and Part I of the short story Blade Squadron. Meanwhile, the Expanded Universe is no longer considered canon[2] and was re-termed as the "Legends" brand. Most Star Wars material released after April 25, 2014—with some exceptions—is composed in collaboration with the Lucasfilm Story Group, making it part of the "new canon."

Although it's commonly misunderstood that a church council defined the canon of Christianity, it wasn't so straightforward. What actually happened was that from the time of the apostles and into the third century C.E. a multitude of different writings circulated among Christian communities, and there wasn't any one defined version of Christianity that was considered correct in all places. There were churches that claimed some connection to an apostle or more, and churches that were fostered or founded by such churches, and other churches that also claimed some ancient connection or greater hold on 'the truth.' It used to be common to hear about Gnostic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, but again that's too simplistic. Many groups fit neatly into neither category.  However, over the course of time, with debates and conversions, one group became dominant. 

The proto-orthodox church, through an extended process of localized discernment over time, came to a general consensus on the books of the New Testament as we now have them. Really, the only significant variation in terms of the New Testament is with the Orthodox Tewahedo canon, that has a few extra texts. This sorting out of canon is seen by some as miraculous, though I suspect the leadership of the episcopacy had more than a little to do with ensuring that books which supported their understanding of the faith were accepted, and others rejected. The role of the episcopacy itself is a matter for a separate post. 

The Jewish Study Bible offers, in its commentary notes, a perspective I find useful in understanding scriptural canon:

In various ways, canonical status for a book or group of books has to do with the community's views of their centrality, authority, sacredness, and inspiration. Over time these characteristics have become connected, inseparably so in some traditions; yet they are not identical, and though they overlap, they must still be viewed distinctly. (Berlin et al., 2004)

Within Unitarian Universalism there is no set, defined canon, and that's by design. While our predecessor churches originally held to the Protestant Bible, that was set aside as a standard by the time of the consolidation of the two denominations mid-twentieth century. Personally, I've noted that poet Mary Oliver and translations of Rumi tend to have a lasting popularity, and there are readings offered in the back of the primary hymnal used that have something of a scriptural ring to them, but really there's no consistency. In fact, it's more common for people to have their own personal canons, whether they think of them as such or (more likely) not. That is, texts, songs, films, and so forth that they find themselves referring back to from time to time.

What this means is that while other Western religions have specified texts around which a community gathers, no such thing exists for Unitarian Universalists. I'm not sure how important that is, as we seem to do okay without it. I grew up Catholic, hearing the lectionary readings at every Mass until the main stories were engraved in my mind, but whether that made any substantive difference to my sense of connection to the community is uncertain. After all, I did skip out at age 17 for a more evangelical outlook, and that only after my own study and reflection. 

With no shared canon, it can't be said that Unitarian Universalists have a shared sense of what a 'revelation' might be. We tend to hold a more humanistic outlook, though not across the board and many would like to deny it, and such questions are not what we typically center among ourselves. We have a much more this-worldly perspective that tends to keep us away from debating the nature of gods and whether there's an afterlife. It's hard to fuss over such literally immaterial things when we live in a world with systemic oppression, corruption in high places, and so much suffering and injustice. 

As for me, I find myself at this point in my life incapable of believing that any deity as described by classic Christian interpretation could possibly exist. Whether a trinity or not, a god described as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent would not be so limited as to be rendered incapable of immediately delivering us from evil. Indeed, if said god were omnipresent, omniscient, and omnimalevolent, and yet still somehow restricted, the world remains exactly as we would expect it to be. That being the case, no purported revelation seems worth the time to take seriously, particularly in light of the fact that our human condition really only started to improve substantially with the advent of the scientific method for arriving at facts and solutions. Had revelation provided us with warnings about microscopic bacteria or forbidden human enslavement in no uncertain terms, then it could perhaps be more worth of acceptance.

But then, is the function of a canon really to serve as a font of actual information, or is it something else? In practice a canon functions as a common ground of understanding for a community. Thus the debates among Trekkies and within other fandoms about what's in canon and what isn't. They have a common vocabulary and shared narratives that they use to engage with one another socially. In the religious arena having a canon that's agreed upon doesn't always mean everyone has to agree with it. In the biblical book of Genesis the patriarch Abraham actually debated and negotiated with God, and he's one seen as a friend of God. Within the text of the Bible itself we encounter different voices that often disagree with one another. How then could it be wrong for a community to share a canon and at the same time have the space and grace to allow for arguments with the text itself?

If I were a theistically-minded Christian and compelled to choose, I'd borrow the perspective held by Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

However, Community of Christ has insisted since the time of Joseph Smith III that what the authors of scripture wrote is not revelation itself. They wrote works of literature that are pointers to revelation. Former member of the Community of Christ First Presidency F. Henry Edwards wrote, “Revelation cannot be fully expressed in words. Words are but tools, and must be quickened by the illumination of the Spirit which shines in the hearts and minds of the readers….Revelation, then, is one thing, and the record of revelation is another.” Former apostle Arthur A. Oakman made the following observation in an important 1966 article: 
The prophets saw the movement of God in history. It was there before they saw it. Had they never apprehended it, it would still have been there. But it became revelation to them when they appreciated this divine movement. What we have in the Old and New Testaments is not, therefore, revelation. It is a record made by the preceptor. …There are, then, strictly speaking, no revealed truths. There are “truths of revelation”—statements of principles, that is, which stem from the actual revelatory experiences. 
In its theology, ethics, and pastoral practice, Community of Christ believes it is essential to make this kind of distinction between revelation and human beings’ varied literary accounts of revelation. Without this distinction, communities are always tempted to worship not the Living God, but their texts, traditions, and interpretations, which can bring and has brought great harm into people’s lives. (Chvala-Smith, 2020)

What we find among white conservative evangelicals in the United States is precisely the situation described in that last paragraph: they commit bibliolatry by paying lip-serving to it without really understanding it or committing to live according to it. If instead they were able to see the Bible as the result of attempts to put into various genres of writing the sense of what they understood as having come from God, there could be a great deal more humility and less beating others over the head with interpretations. Then again, perhaps that's simply an enduring difficulty stemming from the human condition that will manifest regardless. 

Attending General Assembly I've come to suspect that for some Unitarian Universalists they see Robert's Rules of Orders in roughly the position of canon (and that's not a joke), and as I mentioned above there are some texts and songs that we tend to favor collectively. And yet we carry on seemingly well without a canon. It can certainly be useful to have a shared standard as a resource for homilies and liturgies, providing a common ground for everyone in the community. It can also be a source of misery, as we see in the fandoms when some take others to task for not conforming to a particular understanding or appreciation of canon. Except that religion isn't meant to be a hobby. Rather, a way of life. That's not so easy to walk away from, as if leaving a fandom could ever be easy for someone either. 

Berlin, A., Brettler, M. Z., & Fishbane, M. (2004). The Jewish study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation. Oxford University Press.

Chvala-Smith, A. J. (2020). Exploring Community of Christ Basic Beliefs: A Commentary. Herald Publishing House.