The Back Forty: Renewal on the Land Starts in the Heart - Catholic Rural Life

The Back Forty: Renewal on the Land Starts in the Heart

Zach Laughlin • August 22, 2016

Ethical Food and Agriculture

Editor’s Note:  This week’s installment of “Storytellers” comes from CRL supporter Zach Laughlin.  If you have a story you’d like to see on “Storytellers”, please email


Most people can think of an experience, an idea, a person—that really rocked their world. You know, that effect that two love birds share when their eyes meet and they realize that they are “in love”. Well, for me, one of my earthshattering moments in life was being challenged by a friend in argument on the effects agriculture has on the environment. I know, how romantic. To put in all that time as an undergraduate working to become a Special Education teacher, only to exit college applying for farm jobs, no doubt left my family, friends, and even myself, more than puzzled. The short answer is that I can’t stand losing an argument that I know I should’ve won. The long answer is that I am still not sure what God is doing with this Spirit growing within me.

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Farmer and cover crop adopter Mark Frank’s wheat field being harvested by Steiner Custom Harvesting.

I graduated college the spring of 2014 with a lot of zeal and a little bit of knowledge to set the farming world aflame. What was my desire? To get every farmer in the area to grow cover crops on their ground. I was very blessed to start working for a generous and patient farmer named Jim, who seemed to understand my intense desire to farm and to do it sustainably. We quickly became quite acquainted with each other, and I began running my mouth about how all farmers need to drop whatever they are doing and start planting cover crops. To my good fortune, I was blessed that Jim was on the board at the county Soil and Water Conservation District, which happened to have a job opening. In a short amount of time, I was up and running and helping with our county’s cover crop program, funded by a local watershed. I very much enjoyed getting the opportunity to drive around, talk to farmers, learn about their operation, and try to convince them that they should be planting cover crops. I found out quickly that farmers do not learn through presentations and research; they learn by physical evidence: in the form of yield monitors and dollar bills.

During my time there, I realized that I was feeling a call to serve the Church, so I neglected to accept a full-time position and decided to go back to school. I was a bit heartbroken at first because I really enjoyed my work, but my whole experience taught me a huge valuable lesson: change happens slowly. I have continued to stay close to agriculture and have learned a lot more about some of the social justice issues that surround our current agricultural and food system. Though I wanted to bring down “fire upon the earth”, through prayer and reflection, the real issue at hand is larger than even agriculture, the food system, and our care for the environment. The real problem, which Pope Francis develops fully to in “Laudato Si”, is one of the heart; an apathetic stance towards our mission to be responsible for stewarding all of the gifts of creation.

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Farmer Jim Halter unloading rye from his combine. This rye will be used as a cover crop by local farmers.

While I was working for the SWCD, one of my mentors taught me this phrase “the back forty”. She insisted that this is where the next generation of cover crop adopters would begin experimenting with this new idea—you know, it’s a plot of land tucked behind a tree line, out of sight from a squandering public eye. I love this imagery because it reminds me of Jesus’ call in Matthew’s Gospel to reject the boastful public prayer of hypocrites and to find the “secret room” to seek out the love of the Father. My life over the past couple years has been one of retreating to the “secret room”, the “back forty”. It’s safe, secure, humble, but yet transparent. It’s a place where the fog in my heart can clear, and clarity can emerge as Christ’s voice speaks deep from within the depths of the heart. It’s a place where I find rest in Christ and He resting in me.

Indeed, a revolution in agriculture will not begin with research, the food movement, subsidy allocations, or new technology—these are all just side notes from the real storyline. Real sustained change will happen when we are awakened to true resting place of our desires. Creation is a constant reality, not an event. The goal of the spiritual life is to immerse ourselves into this great Mystery. This awakening can only come from the “back forty”, because it is the place within our hearts that need the most transformation. The change that only the Creator can create in us.

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Picture of Jim’s soybean field with rye residue between rows. The soybeans were no-tilled into the rye, which will now act as a weed suppressor, absorb moisture, and keep the soil temperature cooler.

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