Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Reaping What You Sow

Science, technology, myth and folklore, holidays, food, society, even our sense of time . . . life as we know it. These things are seemingly separate and distinct, but there exists a commonality between them, a common denominator for everything we know. In our modern hustle and bustle, it seems that we forget that the human race and human society are inseparably connected to the earth. Throughout history, and especially in modern society, humanity has made a fashion statement of ignoring our immeasurable reliance on this planet, while simultaneously and unscrupulously reaping the resources it provides. We’ve become disconnected from our mother earth.

Many of our ancestors understood and gratefully acknowledged the bounty of the earth, and when we venture into the shrinking wilderness we can often recall a distant primal memory of the significance of every tree, rock, river, and creature. However, just as modern society has become disconnected from nature, so have we become disconnected from our forebears and their simple, honest lives. Some try to reconnect with those lives, and for Tony Brown, a professor of Russian at Brigham Young University, the connection has become visceral.

Professor Brown is the owner of a local farm, a relative rarity in our day and age. To put that into perspective, about 90% of humanity worked on farms or ranches two hundred years ago, compared with only about 2% today. Professor Brown currently grows corn, pumpkins, butternut squash, strawberries, apricots, and tomatoes. The farm is also home to about twenty-five chickens, three roosters, two sheep, two horses, and one Vietnamese potbellied pig. Most of the produce that Professor Brown grows and harvests each year can be purchased at the stand in front of his house, although he sells a good portion of his crops to a local business as well. Professor Brown makes a decent amount of money from the stand; nothing to shake a stick at, to be frank, but enough that it can often support the farm. But income is not the real reason that Tony Brown started his own farm. In his own words, Professor Brown proposes that “there is something to be said about harmonizing one’s biorhythms with the seasons and with the earth.” The farm, to Brown, is a way to forge a powerful personal connection between himself and the earth, his ancestors, and his community.

Professor Brown’s efforts on his farm began five years ago, when he initially purchased four acres of former orchard land in Provo, then later three more adjoining acres of land near the mouth of Provo Canyon. If you visit the farm today, you’ll see several rows of corn, squash, and pumpkin between the street and the Brown home. Close by is an enclosure for the sheep, pig, and chickens, and behind the house you’ll see a long stretch of pasture with a few apricot trees leading up to an old barn and an enclosure for the horses. Along the entire farm you’ll see lengths of PVC pipe emerging from the ground. These pipes, called “risers”, are the lifeblood of the Brown farm. The risers provide much needed water from a water “ditch” known as the Smith ditch, which is fed by water that comes from an area near Bridal Veil Falls. Professor Brown pays to pump water to his farm once every eight days for seven hours at a time (close to 900 gallons!), and it is money well spent. The farm is beautiful, and it wouldn’t look and function the way it does today without a serious amount of work from Professor Brown.

Although it’s hard to tell now, the farm wasn’t always so beautiful. Initially, the land was in disarray: the fruit trees were ill-maintained, weeds choked the land and prevented any productive growth, and there was not enough water to plant anything in substantial quantities. There was a barn at one end of the property, and a house on the other, and everything else was neglected. Professor Brown went to work. He bought a 1951 John Deere B tractor, tilled the land and removed much of the noxious growth, removed dying trees and pruned the rest, built enclosures and bought the animals, and fixed up the barn (adding new doors and extra room). Most importantly, he spent a great deal of time, money and effort to install the pipe, pipe vents, and risers that would water the crops and livestock. Professor Brown has put sweat and (probably) blood into the farm, and this strengthens his connection to the land and the earth.

The all-important question, then, is why? Why build a farm in the modern age of convenience, when we can go to the grocery store and buy everything we need? The answer is multi-faceted. First and foremost, for Professor Brown, it is about inspiration. He says that the farm has improved every aspect of his life, including his professional career. “The sheer act of planting a seed is a way of planting thoughts, and then harvesting inspiration. I’m spiritually and intellectually inspired when I let my mind relax and go with the rhythms of the earth.” Professor Brown sees work on the farm as therapeutic. He doesn’t see it as something he has to do, but something he enjoys doing.

Professor Brown also sees the farm as a way to connect with his family and his community. Although his family doesn’t participate in the farm work, for the most part, he believes that his work will be an example to his children. He wants his children to remember their father working hard on a farm. It’s also a great way to connect with his neighbors, and the community. “People call and tell me that they appreciate my selling local, organic produce” says Brown. He sells produce from his stand to his neighbors and pretty much anyone who stops by, and relies on the honor system. So far, it has worked out really well. He also sells butternut squash to a local bakery that uses it to make soup during the fall and winter months.

And, of course, Professor Brown receives spiritual satisfaction from his work. “Our deepest values and oldest metaphors come from working with the earth.” Professor Brown points out the Tree of Life and several other scriptural metaphors as examples of our deep spiritual connection with the earth, and reminds us of the words of his grandfather’s cousin, Hugh B. Brown, in saying that we can see the effects of “pruning” and “being pruned” in every aspect of our lives.

Professor Brown’s advice to would-be farmers? “Take it slow.” He often reminds his Russian students that they shouldn’t bite off more than they can chew, or else they’ll dread the experience from the beginning of the day to the end. Instead, start small with a garden, gauge your interest and priorities, then build from there. There is a learning curve to farming, and it should be integrated slowly into one’s life. It’s not about instant gratification, but the satisfaction of seeing your hard work yield results. Make it a habit, a hobby. Professor Brown highly recommends the farming lifestyle, and to him the benefits outweigh the costs. Although the balancing act between work on the farm and professional life can be a difficult one to manage, he believes it’s worth it, and he has found a much more profound meaning in the time-honored phrase “You reap what you sow.”