Coming to the Table: Discussing Food in the Middle of Farm Country

Sioux Center, Iowa is a small agricultural community in northwest Iowa where food production is central to economic and cultural life. Drive around Sioux Center and it becomes obvious that corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle production dominate the farming scene. Industrial mechanized farming is a way of life in this area, which makes having a conversation about organic food, factory farms, and high fructose corn syrup complicated. Not only has the political polarization of the food issue erected barriers that make dialogue difficult, behind these farming operations are friends, neighbors, and fellow church members trying to make a living the best way they know. How can the Christian community in places like Sioux Center begin to have an open and honest conversation about food production and consumption? How can we convince people to see beyond the liberal / conservative polarities that divide us, so we might finally address the real issues regarding food production and consumption?

I recently sat down with two people from the Sioux Center community who take the food issue very seriously. Sheryl Sheeres Taylor is a vegetarian and the director of library services at Dordt College in Sioux Center. Janna and John Wesselius John Wesselius farms a small acreage (The Cornucopia) on which he produces a variety of vegetables and raises chickens and hogs which he sells at local farmers markets. Both Sheryl and John are also heavily involved in the local food co-op that provides access to natural and organic food in the Sioux Center area.

How did you become interested in the issue of food production and consumption?

Sheryl: My interest and involvement in food production comes from the fact that I’m a vegetarian. Once you start eating lower on the food chain you actually have to be, at least in our society, much more conscious about finding food that you can actually eat. Increasingly I became more interested in the health aspects of what I was actually eating. I found John Robbin’s book Diet for a New America and more recently Michael Pollan’s books–especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma–to be very insightful. These books really make you think about what you’re actually eating and the ripple effects of choices you make with regard to what goes on your plate. There are also a number of important documentaries regarding food issues, such as King Corn, Food Inc., and Fast Food Nation. As a vegetarian I spend time reading journals like Vegetarian Times and Prevention Magazine, which address the health and environmental concerns of food production. While John’s more involved on the production end, I’m much more involved on the consumption end. I’ve never had a garden–that’s not my kind of hobby. I’d rather cook food then grow food. That’s why I’m glad I can turn to people like John and know he is producing the type of food that I want to buy.

John: I’ve always enjoyed eating–as a kid I was always going for seconds, thirds, and fourths at the buffet. I remember going out to eat with a friend–we had spaghetti with mushrooms–and I got sick afterwards. I found out the hard way that you learn from food. Food does things to your body–through my episode with the spaghetti I discovered that I was allergic to mushrooms.

I’ve always been involved in food production. My parents had a garden and my grandfather was a farmer. My first job was picking potatoes for a guy who grew them on the side. In high school I worked on an apple orchard. During college I spent time working on a dairy farm and a large cash crop operation. Early in our marriage my wife and I grew a small balcony garden that has since developed into an acreage on which we grow vegetables and raise animals for local farmers’ markets and food co-ops. I guess you could say it is a hobby gone wild. I have found the work of Joel Salatin, a self-professed “Christian-libertarian-environmentalistcapitalist farmer,” to be very influential. I appreciate his political and theological leanings. Everything I Want to Do is Illegal is one of his tracts that I identify with.

What do you believe to be the important issues regarding food production and consumption?

John: Food has to taste good–that’s number one for me. My wife used to be a vegetarian, not because she was opposed to eating meat, but because she didn’t know where her meat came from. Now we get our beef from a mile up the road, we raise our own pork and chicken, and we get our fish from someone we know in Sioux Falls, South Dakota who has connections in Alaska. So first it is about taste, and second it is about where and how the food is produced.

Sheryl: For me environmental care is very important. This means being concerned with such things as the amount of fuel and waste it takes to transport food from here to there, as well as the amount of energy it takes to create animal based food. This closely relates to the issue of world hunger and the enormous amount of energy and money it takes to grow animal based food. In the context of world hunger the current model of food production is not a good use of resources. Another important issue related to food is health. Most of the stuff in the grocery store has very little nutritional value–and we wonder why we have a health care crisis in this country. John wants real food that tastes good and he is able to control that. For example, he is able to grow a variety of potatoes he knows are going to taste good… like the yellow fingerling potatoes… there’s taste to that.

John: Austrian Crescent is a white fingerling. Red Thumb is another type of fingerling. Those are our two favorites. I grow 12 different varieties of potatoes which is part marketing and part taste. I need different potatoes at different times.

Sheryl: Most people probably don’t even know there are that many different types of potatoes because in the American marketplace producers work to meet the demand that gets them the most money, which in this case are the potatoes needed by McDonald’s to make french fries. John: Closely related to this is the large amount of food being imported to this country every year. The current system of food production does not support locally grown food. The cost of land, the cost of mechanization, and farm subsidies have resulted in farms that are larger and less diversified, establishing a cycle or system that is propped up by the Farm Bill. The food production system has become too big to fail. We are unwilling to let it collapse and start over. Farmers get into a program, a type of business system, that is fundamentally about the bottom line, but for anyone who wants to do it differently it’s a rough go.

What about the argument that the increased efficiency and production of the current system “feeds the world”?

John: I can’t comment on that. What I do know is that with the current system most countries, including the United States, import food. Kingdoms that have to import food eventually fail. You have to be able to feed yourself. We need food independence just as much as we need energy independence. In fact I believe every country should have energy and food independence.

Sheryl: I agree. We have developed fast food values. We expect food to be cheap, easy, and we expect it to be fuel. Food doesn’t have to taste good it just has to be fuel. When we live by these values we lose the fact that food should be a communal experience, and our values related to food become distorted.

John: My wife would agree completely. Meals at our house are a communal affair.

How do your Christian beliefs influence your approach to this issue?

Sheryl: We are called to be stewards of creation. Food production that hurts the environment, that abuses animals, that uses pesticides–these are all contrary to the biblical idea of stewardship.   Food production that hurts the environment, that abuses animals, that uses pesticides–these are all contrary to the biblical idea of stewardship.   Much of what we ingest, if we are not making conscious choices about what goes on our plate, is just filler–it’s not real food. To me this connects with the biblical principle of treating our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. Do I really want to feed my kids a hot dog that’s full of nitrates and waste products? Am I going to feed them stuff that I know has pesticides on it? For that matter, we shouldn’t be eating the majority of stuff we find in the grocery store because it’s not real food.

My Christian perspective also informs my vegetarianism. As a vegetarian I believe that animals were not created to be food–the provision for eating meat doesn’t come until after the human falls into sin. We should think about food in the context of the promised renewal of all of creation, constantly looking toward the consummation of the new creation even and already in what we choose to eat.

John: Like Sheryl I believe that we are meant to be stewards of creation. I like to describe what I do as “redemptive agriculture.” I believe we are called to responsibly exercise dominion over creation, which for me means farming in such a way that makes things better than they were before. This involves choosing certain farming practices over others. In this context I would argue that eating meat is not only permissible but also, in certain circumstances, the responsible thing to do as a part of a biological and ecological rhythm, a part of caring for and cultivating creation. Bottom line–we are called to be redemptive agents in this world and this includes the way we produce our food.

If I can be blunt, you two are about as far apart on the political spectrum as two people can be.

John: We haven’t talked about this. I haven’t seen Sheryl’s bumper stickers yet.

Sheryl: That’s because I don’t dare put them on my car in this county! How do your political beliefs inf luence your approach to this issue?

Sheryl: I am a registered Democrat.

John: I could never be a registered Democrat.

Sheryl: I am a Democrat because when I look at all the issues political parties deal with I see the Democratic Party doing more for overall Kingdom purposes than the Republican Party. Here in Sioux County people talk about being pro-life. Well, I’m a Democrat and I’m pro-life. But when I use the term pro-life I’m thinking of a very broad term. I’m not just thinking about abortion.   My neighbors and friends who have large farming operations are good people. They do what seed companies, chemical companies, the farmers’ coops, etc. tell them to do to survive.   When I think of pro-life I think of welfare programs, environmental issues, health care for all, stricter gun control, being against capital punishment, military restraint, and ultimately food issues, which includes my choice to be a vegetarian. As I said before, the health care issue is closely connected to the food issue. As people consume unhealthy junk that hurts their bodies the more need there is for access to good health care in order to deal with the problems that arise. Personally, I’m very excited about Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program which is an attempt, at the national level, to promote all around healthy living, including better eating habits.

John: The best description of my political views is conservative with a small “c”. I’m not sure the official big “C” Conservative Party is conservative enough. I’m for gun ownership, as a Canadian I appreciate certain parts of the health care system in this country where when you get hurt you get treated, and of course I’m pro-life. I don’t buy the idea that the Democrats are pro-life, but that’s just my observation. I’ve never been comfortable with the Clintons or the Obamas, but I also don’t like much of what the Republicans do either. I don’t feel like I have to make a choice between the two. I wouldn’t call myself a libertarian either because they can be too fundamentalist–they can be too cold. I’m looking for a Christian alternative, but that doesn’t work very well in a two party system.

So is there a role for government to play?

John: There is a role for government, but if we all took responsibility that role would be much smaller. Let me give you an example that is directly related to the food issue. In the current administration Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has instituted the “Know your Farmer, Know your Food program.” Through this program they’ve made money available to small and local food producers for what they call “high tunnels”–large plastic houses for growing vegetables so we can extend the growing season in the spring and fall. It ticked me off! Four years ago I spent $5,000 of my own money on these structures, and my competition laughed at me and told me it wouldn’t work. Then I bought a second one–and my competition still sat on the fence. Now that there is funding available my competition is going to get their structures paid for.

Sheryl: It’s too bad the Democrats weren’t in office four years ago or you would have had your structures for free.

John: What I’m saying is… they should just stay out of the business. I actually believe it will do more damage in the long run because there are going to be people buying these facilities who haven’t taken the time and energy to research how to use them effectively. Carrots These are people who are not really passionate about this type of food production–they are just looking to make money. When it doesn’t work, because they haven’t done the proper preparation, they will quit and this will be harmful to the rest of us who are passionate about good food and these methods of farming.

Sheryl: I can see your point, but I still believe these types of programs can have good outcomes. I understand there are inconsistencies with regard to government involvement. For the government to advocate for local production through these types of programs, yet at the same time continue to prop up industrial farming through the Farm Bill is a serious problem. This gets us into the bigger issues of the food lobby, high fructose corn syrup, and the economic power of large industrial agricultural companies.

John: If the Democrats get rid of the Farm Bill then I will become a Democrat. We need a “food bill” not a “farm bill”.

Sheryl: Even with these inconsistencies there is a role for government to play in protecting and informing consumers about the food they are eating. For example, in some places restaurants must now list on the menu the amount of fat in the food they are selling. Here we have the government trying to protect the consumer, even though it is still up to the individual to decide if they still want to buy it. Will consumers make healthier choices when unhealthy food is still the much cheaper option? I don’t know…

John: The best form of consumer safety is the consumer having a relationship with the food producer.

Sheryl: You mean “Know your Farmer, Know your Food”?

John: Right, but we don’t need a government program, we just need to live it.

Sheryl: Sure, but consumers and producers need to find each other. You and I live in the same small community (about 6,000 people) but I didn’t find out about your work until I read Michael Pollan’s book and went to a website that lists the different CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). I knew who you were but I didn’t know what you were doing. There has to be ways to help us find each other and I believe government can play a role.

John: Go to www.localharvest.org–it’s an independent, non-government, website where you plug in your zip code and it will pull up the name of a farm close by.

How can we convince the Christian community that this issue transcends current political labels and perspectives and encourage a positive and constructive dialogue?

John: My neighbors and friends who have large operations are good people who are doing what they believe is right. Many of them are concerned with the environment and don’t believe they are mistreating animals in the way they farm. They have learned a specific farming paradigm that is undergirded by the agricultural industry, educational institutions, and government subsidies. The people I know in farming are doing what others (seed companies, chemical companies, the farmers’ co-ops, etc.) are telling them to do to survive. For many it is a market choice–not a lifestyle or faith issue. The people I talk with are very concerned that all sides of this issue are represented fairly so their way of life is not reduced to the one or two operators who give them a bad reputation.

Sheryl: Personally, I think it’s easier to talk about this issue in the bigger cities. I’m a vegetarian in the largest pork-producing county in the United States. People think I’m a joke.

John: Funny, people think I’m a joke too–they don’t think my farm will last.

Sheryl: I understand that we are talking about people’s livelihood. The key is trying to find common ground so we can have a conversation without offending each other. This happens when we know people, when we have relationships with people. These types of discussions can only happen in the context of a community where I’m willing to listen because I know somebody. The church should be the safest place to have these conversations, yet for me it seems to be the scariest.

John: I agree. This is a conversation that needs to be done carefully out of concern and respect for everyone involved.

Sheryl: The church needs to be an important part of the conversation, encouraging the dialogue between people who may disagree, but the church should also promote stewardship by helping the community reflect upon the biblical and theological issues related to food production. One small way in which the Christian community can get involved is through supporting CSAs, community gardens, and local farmers markets. This is just a small step in helping people begin to think about these issues.

Jason Lief is a member of theology faculty at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, currently doing graduate work at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.