Time for an honest, hard look at farming issues, writes Bishop Helen-Ann

Sprouts, a sparrowhawk and agricultural gene editing all feature in this recently published reflection on harvest time by the Rt Revd Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Ripon:

“At this time of year, I find myself humming the tune to the Primary School harvest hit song: “cauliflowers fluffy and cabbages green…(and the chorus): the apples are ripe and the plums are red; the broadbeans are sleeping in their blankety bed”.  If you aren’t familiar with it, a quick internet search should assist (with apologies for the potential ear-worm).  This harvest song takes me vividly back to the early days of my ordained ministry as a curate in a group of rural parishes on the edge of Oxford.  It was the Sunday after the Primary School harvest service which included a rousing rendition of ‘cauliflowers fluffy’ complete with actions and, as I recall, a teacher dressed up as a giant pea.  I got into the pulpit to preach, and stood on a soggy bag of defrosting Brussels sprouts.  By powers of deduction I worked out a likely scenario in which a pressed-for-time parent handed a child a bag of frozen sprouts for the harvest collection without thinking of the implications.  As tinned food had been carefully balanced on the pulpit steps, the frozen spouts must have somehow made it into the pulpit.

Fast-forward to today, and our changed world.  Changed, but familiar all the same.  I don’t have to walk too far from my front door to see signs of the beauty and richness of God’s creation, and of those who dedicate their lives to caring for it.  My early morning run accompanied in recent days by the sound of a tractor at work in a nearby field.  Even in urban settings, amidst the challenges and queues for petrol, geese fly overhead, their distinctive cry an alternative heavenly ‘honk’ to earthly impatient car-horns.  The seasons turn, the days get shorter.  Mince pies are already in the supermarket.

For all the relentless rush through the seasonal points of the year, in agriculture we have depth, literally; families who over generations have cared for particular farms, who have weathered the seasons through all manner of ups and downs.  ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor’, a verse from the Biblical book of Deuteronomy reading declares.  I’m interested in a variant reading of this line which says this: ‘a perishing Aramean was my ancestor’, a reflection perhaps on the constant vulnerability of human existence?  What I think farming offers us as a region is capacity for a long view.  This is more like a long, hard view at the moment.  But we need that truth-telling in a political context where telling lies and getting away with it have become the norm. 

One of the persistent dangers of harvest imagery is that it can become easy to present a rather peaceful ‘all is well’ picture of the countryside.  I thought it quite ironic (certainly not eirenic) that as I joined a recent Church of England webinar on rural ministry, right outside my window I witnessed a sparrowhawk crash to the ground with a dove in its claws, proceeding to kill and eat it.  Suddenly the on-screen advice to make the most of coffee-morning conversations in village halls was replaced with the raw reality of life and death, right there in vivid view.  That disconnect can be worrying, not least when it’s easy to forget just how much our lives are bound up in each other.  It’s not just human beings that live in relationship with one another of course; the same applies to how we connect with creation around us.  I’ve noticed quite a few ‘farm-to-fork’ initiatives in supermarkets recently, along with educational opportunities in schools for children to cook using fresh produce, and learn about seasonality.  The danger of a ‘click and collect’ culture is an expectation that when I want something, I will be able to get it more or less immediately.  Agriculture can teach us much about patience, as well as disappointment, and perseverance.  It can also help us celebrate discovery and innovation, as evidenced by the recent Government announcement around the future regulation of precision breeding techniques such as gene editing.  This has been welcomed (albeit cautiously by some) as a way to enable more profitable, sustainable and ecologically sound farming.  Balancing people and planet with profit is a tricky business, but it’s not without its benefits.  This harvest season offers us an opportunity to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ once more to all those who work hard to provide our food, especially locally.  Keep an eye out for those Brussels sprouts mind you, especially if you happen to step into a pulpit on a Sunday morning.”

A version of this article first appeared in the Yorkshire Post.

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