The Farminary is a twenty-one acre sustainable farm on Princeton Pike that offers courses to Princeton Seminary students about the intersection of faith and agriculture. At the Farminary, students receive a unique approach to theological education. It is directed by Professor Nate Stucky, who described its mission best: “We want to form these leaders who know how to love well, who know how to love God, and love neighbor, and love land… But we’re not content to let the intellect sit on its own. We want to recognize it within… the whole of what it means to be human.”
Professor Nate Stucky has had his hands in dirt his whole life. He grew up farming in Kansas and worked for local farmers in high school and college. After a stint in Maryland as a youth pastor, he moved back to Kansas to farm full-time. He describes that period as one of “intense vocational discernment” during which he answered a “sense of call to Ministry.” This eventually led him to the Princeton Seminary where he studied for his PhD. He brought the idea for the Farminary to the Seminary President. The President approved, and Stucky came on as Director after graduating in 2015.
I sat down with Professor Stucky in the Fall of 2017 to discuss the Farminary. He could not hide his passion when he spoke. His low and steady tone sometimes rose as if he were delivering a sermon on faith and the land. Our conversation was more expansive than I anticipated, ranging from Wendell Berry to Genesis to the materiality of faith.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
JASON: In your article “Body, Soul, Soil, and Sacrament”, you reference Genesis 1:29-30,1 which is commonly read as giving man dominion over life. But you also credit Wendell Berry’s essay “The Body and the Earth” as informing your article. In that piece he emphasizes that we should give up any sense of that dominion over nature. How do you reconcile these two visions?
NATE: That verse in Genesis 1 has caused a lot of trouble. (laughs) And I think there are different ways into it. One way is to ask the question, “What do we mean when we say dominion?” And that question comes on the heels of this description of humankind being created in the image of God. It’s a really profound, bold, thought-provoking assertion that humans are created in the image of God. And then, this invitation, “Here’s the food and I give you dominion.” So if you put those things side by side, dominion doesn’t originate with humankind. It is given to humankind from God. Whatever dominion humankind would have, it should, in some way, reflect or follow the dominion that is demonstrated by God’s own action in that chapter. In the story itself, God has God’s dominion over creation in a way that moves inextricably toward the flourishing of this astonishingly diverse creation. So, if we are going to talk about dominion, I want that lens on. Where its overall telos is the flourishing of this astonishingly diverse creation. And anything that goes against that is not faithfully reflecting the kind of dominion that has been exercised by God.
J: So would you go as far as to call that a responsibility to promote life?
N: Yes, without question. One of the beautiful, profound things that Genesis does is that it doesn’t leave us with just one creation story; it goes immediately into the second creation story which is where we get the whole formation of the garden story about Adam and Eve, and the fall, and Cain and Abel, and the death of things. When God creates the first human, the Hebrew for human there is adam and the Hebrew for soil is adamah. So right there in the Hebrew there is an intimate link between human and humus.2
The verse common to many is the old King James translation that said the Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden to till and keep it. So you have the adam put in the garden to till and keep, but the words there that get translated as till and keep are avad and shamar from the Hebrew.
Ellen Davis is an Old Testament scholar at Duke. When she translates avad and shamar, instead of till and keep, she [translates the two words as] work, serve, observe, and preserve. So those are the responsibilities given to humankind in the garden. Work it. Serve it. Observe it, pay attention. And also do what’s necessary to preserve it. So to your question, I don’t know if responsibility is a strong enough word. I think the reality is that we don’t actually know who we are, and we may not actually really be living in the fullest human adamah kind of sense, apart from that intimate relationship with creation. It’s not a curse to go work with the land. It’s a gift that helps us know who we really are. And helps us really know who God is.
J: How does the Farminary play into that entire field of thought?
N: I taught a course out here with one of our Old Testament professors from the Seminary, Professor Jacqueline Lapsley, who had warned me ahead of time, “Nate, you need to know, I kill things.” (laughs) I said, “No worries. I’ll take care of that farm and garden part. You bring the Old Testament expertise.”
It was a one-credit “text and terrain” course. We were reading Old Testament agrarian passages and gardening and we were asking, “How does our time in the garden change the way we spend time with scripture? And how does our time with scripture change the way we spend time in the garden?” So we had spent the time in Genesis 2 and later in the semester, we were out in the garden and Professor Lapsley was planting carrots. So she’s down on her hands and knees and she’s cut a little groove in the soil and she’s placing her seeds in the soil and she has this moment of realization that she is embodying shamar. She is in the posture of service, hands and knees on the ground serving the land and, we trust, also serving God in that. So that’s a moment that, fundamentally, cannot happen in a seminar room or a lecture hall. It required embodiment. It required actually having this intimate contact with the seed and with the soil. And it unveiled meaning within the text that has always been there. But the text itself cries out for that broader relationship. Or maybe a relationship in the first place with soil.
The food that we eat eventually it comes from the soil. So that connection is more than just theological. It just comes to light in a different way, it’s made three dimensional, it’s made multisensory in this space. And we can recognize, in a way that is really visceral our dependence on the land, our dependence on our neighbors. You have to recognize every time I go to the grocery store and pull a tomato off the shelf, it came from somewhere. It came from some vine somewhere. Maybe it’s hydroponically farmed or maybe it’s from a field in Florida. But regardless, somebody planted this, somebody harvested this, somebody transported it, all these things. At our best, this place unveils some of that. It does open up really big questions like: is this tomato that I’m eating honoring the life and all the lives that are bound up in that, and in so doing, honoring God? Or is it contributing to something more like the destructive version of Dominion?
J: And so do you view this agricultural side as a necessary part of theological education?
N: Too frequently, the question of faith has been reduced to something that is utterly immaterial. They are some abstract thoughts or ideals and maybe it influences how you live your life a little bit, but it’s just a manifestation of the body-spirit divide. I think that the world/millennials/whoever are absolutely right to look at that version of faith and say, “I’m good. (laughs) I don’t need that. Why would I give my life to that?”
And so, for me, part of the power of this space is that it lifts up again the ways that, in our context, Judeo-Christian faith is a thoroughly material faith. At the center of it all is this confession that God became material in Jesus Christ, and then Christ invites his disciples to follow him and to remember him, not by giving them some book or treatise to read, but by handing them bread and wine, saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
So there’s culture there, and there’s land there, and it’s multi-sensory, and it’s in the context of this meal which is Passover which demonstrates this extraordinarily vital connection to the Jewish faith. And to reduce that to some list of beliefs that you’re just supposed to check off and sign your name… it totally strips the faith of meaning. And it divorces it from the nitty gritty joy, pain, struggle, tragedy, triumph of our everyday lives. So, in my most biased moments, I say, “Yeah! The Farminary helps us solve all those things.” (laughs) I don’t know if it does that, but I think it does move us in that direction…We’ve received this faith tradition and we carry it. And that tradition has within itself resources for connecting the questions of transcendence with our embodied material existence.
For the one who is at the complete opposite end, for the dogmatic materialist who says, “Look, there is no anything out there.” What about our experiences of affection, of surprise, of laughter, of sadness, of death, and of birth? These are things that are all sort of pushing us up against transcendence. We have to make our choices about how we interpret these things. So I think maybe the Farminary speaks to both sides of that.
J: In his essay Berry also says, “To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.” Do you have any stories of students or visitors that felt that healing, that “coming to the feast of creation”?
N: One of the sweet gifts that has come about because of the Farminary is that it has attracted students from many many different backgrounds, different theologies, different racial-ethnic backgrounds, and obviously different geographies. And we have attempted to structure this in such a way that students can’t get out of their Farminary classes without getting to know each other and without getting to know the land a little bit.
If you go back to Genesis 1 and if you read that Genesis 1:1-2:3 there is this little three word phrase “of every kind”: “sea creatures of every kind,” and “plants of every kind,” and “animals of every kind.” There’s this picture that the vitality of creation in the beginning is inseparable from this astonishing diversity. And that variety, that diversity contributes to vitality and doesn’t threaten it. The world has a problem with this right now. There are so many tragic scenarios that are emerging in our world because people are interpreting variety and difference as a threat to vitality, rather than as inherent to vitality.
So we bring students from all kinds of various backgrounds, geographies, theologies, races, ethnicities together at the table. When we do our three credit courses out here, we’re out here for 4 to 6 hour blocks and there is a potluck meal that is part of all those classes every week. But it’s a surprisingly rare opportunity for students to be able to serve each other, which gets back to Genesis 2. But they do this, and they prepare this meal for each other, and then we sit at this table and we share it. If you do that enough weeks, it just carves out this space. I’ve been intentional about not co-opting the meal time as bonus lecture time, just let the meal time be the meal time. Then that has a way of creating this space where students will talk about whatever we read for the week, or whatever we did in the garden. But beyond that, they’ll ask the simple but profound questions like, “Where’d you grow up?” and “What did you bring tonight?” And I can tell specific stories of students who came to class with a history, or those who are just so clearly at different places theologically. In one case I had these two students who intentionally put themselves on the same work team for the last garden time of the semester. Later one of them told me, “I did that because I was trying to live out the ideals we’ve been talking about in this class.”
In another case, these two people were at very different points theological spectrum. The last meal that we had a farm, they sat right there, one next to the other at the corner of the table. And I don’t think they changed their theological positions, but they saw each other. They were listening to each other and it was clear they were trying to recognize a common humanity and something bigger that held them together than their different theological bases. And all that is not separable from the food, the gardening, the whole community of creation.
J: How has the Farminary informed your conception of wellness and health?
N: Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, Sabbath can be, at its best, this gift that messes with our sense of time. It’s like, “No, once every 7 days, just stop. Don’t do any work.” I have said many times that I hope people experience time differently here at the farm. I wouldn’t separate that from my understanding of wellness. Particularly in this context, if we are defining wellness here according to how much work we can get done, how much we can achieve, our GPA, our salary after we graduate, any of those things, that, ultimately, will distort who I think we were really created to be. So here we are. We sit in this barn, we can hear the breeze, hear the birds, hear the geese. If you really listen you can hear some traffic in the background, but just the presence of this place for me has a time altering impact. There are a hundred different ways I could talk about connections between the Farminary and wellness. I would include how we shop for groceries to how much fossil fuel we use. All those things are part of that. But I think all of that is also connected to who are we at the end of the day? Are we just producers? Are we just consumers? Are we just people who are trying to achieve more and more? Or were we created for community, created for these vital relationships with each other, with the land, with God? If we are created for that, then we have to recognize there is no loving relationship with anything apart from a long accumulation of time. It just takes time for any loving relationship to develop and then to endure through time.
So maybe the Farminary slows us down for a moment. And in that slowing, it’s like water and soil to the seed. Like oh, now it can grow.
- Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
- A variable material resulting from partial decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of soil.