It sounds like a traditional African proverb: you can tell the condition of a man’s heart by looking at the condition of his field. Eight thousand miles away from the soil-rich continent of Africa, an Alabama-native farmer quoted this coined phrase, convinced of the depth of truth in its words.
Early-morning fog painted a gray haze over the damp grass of Rora Valley Farm. Through the curtain of suspended dew, Noah Sanders stood with a hula-hoe in his hand, looking down at sprigs of Bermuda grass creeping into a 20x20-foot plot of red-clay dirt being prepared for the seeds of the winter harvest. With the hoe, he scraped over the surface of the topsoil, reached down and picked up the invading plants and tossed them onto the nearby black silage tarp.
The garden was pristine. Seven individual plots held a variety of vegetables in perfectly spaced rows. Wheat straw mulch covered the top of the soil around the plant stems and any portion of the garden not currently in use. The maturing varieties of tomatoes, red okra, bell peppers and sweet potatoes represented future profits at a farmer’s market in nearby Birmingham, Alabama.
It wasn’t always this picture-perfect. Sanders recently felt his farm was at a crossroads, and he contemplated hiring another employee. But increasing the scale of the farm was visibly causing the farming standards to slip. This caused tension in Sanders as he realized his heart was in the wrong place. He didn’t begin farming for the money but rather out of a desire to “have a home-based family business, work with [his] hands, work outside, steward God’s creation and be able to serve and work with people … being able to spend time with [his] family.” Biting off more than he could chew, the management aspects of the farm suffered, and Sanders struggled to keep up in the chaos. In an attempt to focus once again on his heart for farming, Sanders turned to Google, desperate for a better farming model.
“So as I was searching and trying to do research on what type of resources were out there as far as farming from a Christian perspective, one of the few — really one of the only organizations or ministries that … really talked about the relationship between our faith in Christ and how that affects tending the land was a ministry over in Zimbabwe … called Foundations for Farming,” Sanders said.
Over thousands of years, seeds have been laid prayerfully into fertile soil with the hopes of a harvest, and for millennia farmers have practiced both no-till and tillage farming. But as modern technology advanced farming styles and techniques, the plow became a fundamental tool for farmers in the field. Now the majority of farmers globally plow their fields as they prepare for sowing the seeds of their next crop.
In the eyes of farmers who routinely turn the soil as preparation for planting, plowing accomplishes a number of things: getting rid of weeds quickly, burying the harvested crop residue and allowing fewer people to do the work of many. But the practice of conventional plowing has cost the world significantly.
“Soil erosion and degradation is one of the most serious environmental and public health problems facing human society today,” Dr. David Pimentel, professor emeritus at Cornell University, said. “Each year about 10 million hectares of cropland are lost due to soil degradation, thus significantly reducing the cropland available for food production.” Pimentel said that overall soil is diminishing from land areas 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil renewal, which produces a crisis around human food security and the environment, ultimately felt the most amongst the poor and densely populated corners of the developing world.
But critics of farming methods involving pulverizing the soil are not just a recent addition to the chorus of eco-advocates. Following the “black blizzards” of the 1930s that turned the south-central region of the United States into a dust bowl, Edward H. Faulkner published a bold, well-researched challenge of traditional plowing. In Ploughman’s Folly, he shocked farmers by the fourth sentence of his opening paragraph: “The fact is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.”
So, if plowing is such a bad idea, what is the alternative?
No-till conservation farming is a farming method that introduces minimal disturbance to the soil and retains the previous harvest’s crop residue as a nice mulch blanket that protects from erosion and increases soil productivity.
Brian Oldreive first heard of no-till farming in the 1970s in his homeland of Zimbabwe. A nationally recognized, successful tobacco farmer, Oldreive did what all the other Zimbabwean farmers did and proudly shrugged it off as a crazy idea. No one needed a new model of farming because both tobacco profits and yields were increasing. That all changed when Oldreive became a Christian. Suddenly there was a career-altering tension he couldn’t continue to sweep under the rug. “I came to know Jesus in 1978, and the Lord convicted me and showed me I was growing poison for many people,” Oldreive said. So to right his conscience and follow after a heavenly calling, Oldreive walked away from tobacco farming — subsequently losing everything — and took a job at a declining farm, growing maize, wheat and soy. But the farming methods Oldreive brought over from his tobacco farming days were propelling the farm closer to foreclosure.
“We were plowing very deeply because that’s what we’d all been taught to do as farmers, that you’re a good farmer if you plow evenly and deeply,” Oldreive said. “We were burning all our crop residues off. We were exposing our soil to raindrops, and the compaction of the raindrops would seal the surface. The plowing made it all soft and [the topsoil] would wash away. We’d lose our water and our moisture. Our costs were going up … our yields were going down … and we were going out of business.”
In order to make the new farm profitable again, Oldreive knew that he would have to do something different and drastic. On his knees in the bush of rural Zimbabwe, the farmer broke down, and God began to reveal a new model of farming — how plants grow naturally, God’s way. This model would eventually spread out of the red clay bush of Zimbabwe into 32 African countries and three continents.
Oldreive took this model and experimented on two hectare of maize. The results were so much better than the conventionally farmed crops that Oldreive had the faith to expand to 50 hectares. Same story. Within six years, the entire 1,000-hectare farm was converted to a mechanized no-till farming model, and the profits allowed them to buy up surrounding farms. The farm soon amounted to 3,500 hectares, the second largest privately owned farm in Africa.
Oldreive knew that God had not shown him this model to hoard for his own gain but felt he was to share this technology with the rural poor of Africa, starting with his home country of Zimbabwe. He set up more than 58 demonstration plots around Zimbabwe to help rural farmers, but realized that as soon as they moved to a new area, Zimbabwean farmers would revert to their old models. Not sure why this was happening, Oldreive desperately got back on his knees and asked God, “Why?”
The insight the Lord gave him revealed something intrinsic in his own people — there was a lack of farming enterprise. “I would see that this lack was the cause of Africa being the poorest continent on Earth, getting poorer, and I went to God, wrestling with him in prayer about it,” Oldreive said. The answer he got seemed less than spiritual: “Teach them to make a profit.” The steps Oldreive felt would do this have guided Foundations for Farming — an initiative teaching individuals, communities and nations conservation farming methods for more productive use of the land — since its founding: Be on time; farm at a high standard; without waste; and with joy. Oldreive and Foundations for Farming raised a grassroots army of volunteer trainers committed to going into villages across Zimbabwe to spread this simple technology that produces big results.
Foundations for Farming has grown exponentially and globally, from those early days in rural Zimbabwe, and God has provided many leaders to stand alongside Oldreive. Craig Deall, Foundations for Farming’s CEO, was a career farmer in the nation of Zimbabwe until he and every white Zimbabwean farmer, including Oldreive, lost everything during the land reform process in 2000. “We were faced with three scenarios,” Deall said. “We could flee, we could fight, or we could forgive. And forgiveness [was] the hardest option.” Not willing to bog their lives down in bitterness, Deall and his family decided to put Matthew 8 into practice, choosing to turn the other cheek. “And the one verse that says if a man steals your tunic, you must give him your coat as well,” Deall said, “so if a man steals your farm, you must teach him how to farm.” Oldreive and Deall have whole-heartedly committed to that statement. They both live out a life of service to the very country that stole everything they had, serving anyone who has a desire to listen.
A grandmother stood next to a sign that declared her one-acre property a Foundations for Farming model farm. The maize stalks, perfectly spaced at 60 centimeters apart, created an impeccably straight line of golden brown, awaiting the impending harvest. Maggie Chiodza saw her yield more than double – from four bags to 10 bags of maize — when she abandoned her old model of plowing and burning for a no-tillage model. A 70-year-old widow, she tended her fields alone with just a hoe in hand, and the profits from her yield increase were evident in the beautiful concrete home with additional grain storage rooms standing behind her on the property. This was a living example of the groundswell among the poor rising up in Zimbabwe through the vision of Foundations for Farming.
Back to Alabama and a 150-acre farm south of Birmingham. Noah Sanders’ research produced a book titled Born-Again Dirt, written to encourage other farmers to approach farming from a Christian perspective, and a strong desire to meet Oldreive in person.
Sanders devoured everything he could find on the Internet, including recordings of Oldreive and Deall speaking at an annual conference held in Zimbabwe. “And so I heard the heart of these men, I was just convicted that, especially me as a young man, I need to find older men that I can learn from and be encouraged by,” Sanders said. “And so that’s when the Lord began to convict me that you need to go learn from these men. You need to go disciple under these guys.”
Sanders took his book profits and bought a ticket to Zimbabwe in September of 2013. Two weeks with the Foundations for Farming team and other like-minded farmers from around the globe brought Sanders’ passion for farming back into focus.
Foundations for Farming training courses are more about heart than farming technology. “They focused on the heart and giving us the heart of unselfishness, humility, trusting in the Lord … and I began to see him change that in my heart and kind of reaffirm what I knew,” Sanders said. Returning back to the U.S., Sanders put the simple technology into practice — being on time; to a high standard; without waste; and with joy.
With a demonstrated commitment to practicing these principles, Oldreive and Deall approached Sanders about birthing a Foundations for Farming training station in the United States in August of 2014. “Brian and I, over the last year — and our team — we’ve been just so impressed with Noah and been talking about him and wondering where his place is to champion Foundations for Farming,” Deall said.
“Noah is just an outstanding example of a young Christian man on a mission. We saw a young man who just loved Jesus so much, and he … had such a passion for the soil and for people and for discipling folks.”
In reality, the planning had already been underway at Rora Valley Farm. Sanders’ heart to disciple others had already led him to create a few demonstration plots around their farm, allowing him to invite visitors in for training. “I want to see discipleship-based Christian agricultural training for a lot of the Christians God is raising up that’s interested in agriculture where the only training opportunities primarily are from a pagan or just humanistic worldview,” Sanders said.
It’s not every day that you hear about missions birthed in Africa, crossing the ocean to land on U.S. soil, but Foundations for Farming is making this happen — globally.
Sanders and his family are excited to join the likes of non-African Foundations for Farming stations in Canada, Austria, India and Australia. “After prayerful consideration, Rora Valley Farms will be the first U.S. Foundations for Farming training station,” Sanders said.
Foundations for Farming’s model of expansion hinges on people with a passion to spread a message of “unselfishness, faithfulness and humility of Christ and a plan for the poor.” The headquarters on the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe, provide any necessary resources for a new station but steps back to allow each location to thrive in their environment. “All we want to do is equip someone, and then he takes it into his own language and culture group,” Deall said. “He tweaks the agricultural side to suit his climate. It’ll look different in every nation, and it can be as big as or as small as that visionary who now holds that vision wants to grow it.”
Sanders acknowledged the implementation will look different based on “situations with labor and economy.” But, the inherent heart issues of man transcend borders and cultures, and Sanders knows that it is applicable wherever you are in the world.
As he reflected back on the coined agricultural proverb, Sanders considered how it applied in his life. “So often in the past, I don’t want people to look at my garden because it doesn’t really reflect well on my heart,” Sanders said. “But this year, it’s not perfection we aim for; it’s excellence and wholeheartedness to the Lord. But to see him be faithful to produce that fruit through our faithfulness has just been a real joy.”
TEAM has opportunities to partner with Foundations for Farming in parts of Africa. If you would like to serve alongside farmers passionate about discipleship and spreading a model of hope for the global poor, visit www.team.org today. For more information about Foundations for Farming and their programs, visit www.foundationsforfarming.org.
- Written and Photographed by Robert JohnsonDownload This Issue of TEAMHorizons