If there is a leftward shift in young (urban, white, college-educated) evangelicalism, perhaps one of the most prominent signs is our disposition toward food.  It is common among hipster evangelicals to hear conversations about ‘sustainable farming,’ free range meat, and organic vegetables.  We are the Trader Joes demographic, until we leave it for the greener pastures of Whole Foods.

Don’t take me the wrong way:  my wife and I don’t shop anywhere except Trader Joes.  And I think there’s a lot to be said for conservative’s approaching questions of agri-industry with a more localized mindset (John Schwenkler has shown us the way).

But in an enlightening and amusing piece for The American, Blake Hurst offers a helpful qualification to the conversation about agri-industry.  A long-time farmer, Hurst isn’t short on qualifications–he knows his subject intimately.  Nor is he short on wit:

Lynn Niemann was a neighbor of my family’s, a farmer with a vision. He began raising turkeys on a field near his house around 1956. They were, I suppose, what we would now call “free range” turkeys. Turkeys raised in a natural manner, with no roof over their heads, just gamboling around in the pasture, as God surely intended. Free to eat grasshoppers, and grass, and scratch for grubs and worms. And also free to serve as prey for weasels, who kill turkeys by slitting their necks and practicing exsanguination. Weasels were a problem, but not as much a threat as one of our typically violent early summer thunderstorms. It seems that turkeys, at least young ones, are not smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown. One night Niemann lost 4,000 turkeys to drowning, along with his dream, and his farm.

Both conservatives and liberals go wrong, I would argue, when they ignore the original reasons for our current social reality.  While those reasons may or may not be good, the conversation about how to best interact with the world in a moral fashion is impoverished if they are ignored.   And this conversation, it seems, is just one place where a healthy understanding of the reasons behind agri-industry–and, perhaps, even some charity toward our industrial farming neighbors–is needed.

Hurst is at his best when talking about how farming works, but he is quite insightful on the intellectual difficulties most critics of agri-industry (unwittingly) face.  He writes:

Critics of “industrial farming” spend most of their time concerned with the processes by which food is raised. This is because the results of organic production are so, well, troublesome. With the subtraction of every “unnatural” additive, molds, fungus, and bugs increase. Since it is difficult to sell a religion with so many readily quantifiable bad results, the trusty family farmer has to be thrown into the breach, saving the whole organic movement by his saintly presence, chewing on his straw, plodding along, at one with his environment, his community, his neighborhood. Except that some of the largest farms in the country are organic—and are giant organizations dependent upon lots of hired stoop labor doing the most backbreaking of tasks in order to save the sensitive conscience of my fellow passenger the merest whiff of pesticide contamination. They do not spend much time talking about that at the Whole Foods store.

The most delicious irony is this: the parts of farming that are the most “industrial” are the most likely to be owned by the kind of family farmers that elicit such a positive response from the consumer. Corn farms are almost all owned and managed by small family farmers. But corn farmers salivate at the thought of one more biotech breakthrough, use vast amounts of energy to increase production, and raise large quantities of an indistinguishable commodity to sell to huge corporations that turn that corn into thousands of industrial products.

But Hurst’s opening lines are,  I think, some of his most intriguing:

I’m so tired of people who wouldn’t visit a doctor who used a stethoscope instead of an MRI demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food. Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty. It still is.

I wonder–and it is only a query–about the accuracy Hurst’s intuition that the fundamental criticism of agri-industry is that it’s dirty. All evangelicals have a deep tendency toward gnosticism, and I suspect that this is one manifestation of that tendency in the younger generations.  We envision the natural processes as somehow cleaner and less messy than those that humans have cultivated–a thought that is completely abstracted from the realities of embodied farming life.  When this occurs, it becomes all too tempting to have an ‘angel ethic’–a series of ethical judgements that are divorced from the facts of the case.  As such, I suspect that Hurst’s rhetorical slice cuts deeper than he knows.

Regardless, Hurst’s piece is an entertaining and provocative challenge to those who have adopted a posture of criticism toward agri-industry.  And such a challenge is–if only for the sake of reasoned conversation–very welcome indeed.*

*For the record, I came up with this title independent of Owen Strachan’s humorous and insightful series, which I had (shamefully) forgotten about until he resurrected it…today.  And even so, I had to keep the title, as it was Just. Too. Perfect.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


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  2. There’s a very similar exchange that recently went on in the letters section of Touchstone. I think that it is misguided to make the issue so black and white (agri-business=evil, small farmer=saint).

    What concerns me most when it comes to animal production is the humane treatment of animals. Is leaving the young turkeys out in the rain to drown humane? Certainly not! But is keeping them in cages in which they can barely move humane? I don’t think so. And the latter situation is not the fault of technology; I would argue it’s the fault of greed. In the end, I believe that technology is a tool which can be used well or poorly. If better technology can aid the farmer while he or she maintains ethical treatment of animals, then hurray. The hardest part as a consumer is knowing where to buy it. Especially since we have a labeling problem…that’s another story. :)


  3. Odlaram,

    I missed that exchange. Thanks for pointing me to it–I’ll look it up at the library (since, sadly, my subscription lapsed).

    I think you’re right to worry about the humane treatment of animals, but on some level, isn’t farming always going to be inhumane on some level? After all, killing for meat isn’t exactly mercy killing.

    Also, I think we disagree on the value-neutrality of technology, but that’s a different story… :)


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