By Rev. Jealaine Marple
I know that many folks who live in urban and suburban settings might not know what communities like mine in rural Iowa are going through right now, because I wouldn’t if I weren’t a pastor in a rural setting. I am a city girl through and through. My first, and current call, however, proves that God has a great sense of humor; I live in a town of 15 houses.
Here’s what it’s like where I live. There is a corn field in my front yard and a corn field in my backyard—although both may be beans depending on the year. I cannot get pizza delivered to the parsonage. Prior to this, if I heard someone talking about “tile,” I would have assumed they were speaking of the stuff in the bathroom, not the stuff in their field. These days, my favorite phone call to receive is one that goes something like this “Pastor, do you have room in your deep freezer?” I know that means I have some freshly processed beef or pork coming my way. I’ve even gotten used to the rumble of grain trucks that settle in front of the parsonage for a brief stop on their way to or from selling their corn. They’re passing by for a good reason, the price is really good right now.
Rhythms of farm life
Growing up and driving past fields in the midwest, I often wondered what farmers did once they were done growing crops. Basically, I wondered what they did when there was snow on the ground. I told you I was a city girl. Now, I know there is always something to be done on the farm. Machinery needs to be fixed. Livestock need to be fed, watered, and milked. Livestock may need help birthing. Seed needs to be ordered, which is always a gamble. Land may be sold or purchased. The farmer down the road may need some help with something. Mother Nature may slow down, but that doesn’t mean the farmer slows down.
At the same time, there are so many worries that farmers carry. I can see these worries as they enter the sanctuary week after week. These are burdens I cannot lighten with a sermon full of good news, a friendly pat on the back, or even a bad cup of watered-down coffee.
Our sorrows and burdens
The congregation I serve in rural Iowa is 12 miles away from the nearest town. Some days, it feels like 12 minutes and others it feels like 12 hours. We are easily forgotten out here in the country. The open land, the cute animals, and the “American Gothic” setting can make it seem idyllic, but some burdens are very similar for those in rural communities to those in urban or suburban communities, like illicit drug use. Driving along the gravel roads to visit shut-ins (pre-COVID) it was not unusual to see 2-liter bottles scattered along the ditches. County drug enforcement warned us not to pick these up as they are often discarded mobile meth labs. The chemicals used in methamphetamine can easily be found on farms for the purposes intended, like weed killer. However, in the wrong hands, kept in an unlocked outbuilding, these chemicals become dangerous.
Drug use isn’t the only concern. Suicide among farmers has increased 40% in the last two decades. Farmers are more likely to die by suicide, compared with other occupations. So, I spend a lot of time worrying about my guys. I use that pronoun purposefully; all of my congregation’s farmers are men. All of them were born into it, and the pressure to keep farming on their century farm is great. They hope to pass it on to their sons, but interest in the family business is waning at best.
And then the pandemic…
When COVID-19 hit, the farmers never stopped working. They never stopped or took a day off because they couldn’t. The animals didn’t care that there was a pandemic. The crops didn’t care. We as a nation still needed to be fed. But the pandemic hit them hard. When schools were not in session, milk consumption in school lunches disappeared, resulting in dairy farmers having to dump perfectly good milk. Beef and pork processing plants became hot spots for the virus as workers need to be close together to do their jobs. It was not uncommon to hear of these plants (like Tyson) having to shut down for weeks at a time in order to get the virus under control. Farmers had no place to send their cows and hogs and had no other choice but to slaughter them and take the loss. If a finished hog weighed 150 pounds and was purchased for $2.50 a pound, that would be $375 per hog. I have a farmer that raises 10,000 hogs farrow to finish several times a year over. To slaughter just 3000 of his herd would have cost him over $1.1 million.
I think sometimes my people feel forgotten, and not just my people in the congregation I serve. I wonder if a lot of farmers feel this way. Locally, I see the care the farmers here take of the land and their animals. I can literally taste the difference. I wonder if the average consumer knows what goes into that pound of beef, gallon of milk, or dozen eggs? The same thing that you put on your table to feed your family is the same thing that my farmers are placing on theirs. My farmers worry about the same thing that many in urban and suburban congregations do as well: how to pay the bills, medical issues, their kids, the environment, government issues, keeping up with technology, and global affairs. When it comes down to it, the chasm between rural and urban isn’t as big as society and the media wants us to believe.
I believe my colleagues in ministry would do well to remember that as well. Those of us who take rural calls are not less than. We are not less capable or less trained; we are not less worthy of compensation. We certainly are not less educated. We may see your call in an urban or suburban setting and wonder how you can feel so confined. Rural calls often get a bad reputation. I never pictured myself in a place like this—the country church in the middle of a cornfield. A place where someone once drove a farm implement to church (because it was faster than going home to change out to the truck). A place where the divide is between red (Case I-H) and green (John Deere). But, like I said, God is hilarious.
In this article, Rev. Marple writes about farm life in rural Iowa, but what is rural life like in your region? Whether you live in places like Northern or Southern California, Northwest Kansas, Southern Illinois, or upstate New York, you’ll find farmers and a distinct rural way of life. How can you build community with the rural population where you live?
Here are some things to think about from Rev. Marple:
- How do you and the people around you speak about the farmers in your state? How could you shift the conversation?
- Are there local farmers that you could buy food from directly?
- What do you know about farming practices, and what could you learn? What’s grown in your state? How?
- What is the nearest rural church to where you live? Have a conversation with their pastor via a Zoom coffee date and start to dream up projects that you could do together.
And remember, God is already preparing the fields for tending.
About the Author
Rev. Jealaine Marple is in her seventh year of serving the amazing people at Elvira Zion Lutheran Church located in rural Clinton County, Iowa. She is passionate about mental health, being a mom, and encouraging her husband to finish his PhD (he’s so close). In her non-existent spare time, she loves listening to podcasts, watching Food Network, and her current binge obsession: The Crown.
Upcoming Learning Experiences
Hybrid Ministry in a Post-Pandemic Church
Understanding, Exploring, & Managing Bias and Burnout
Mere Science and Christian Faith
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