Faith in farming? You bet!

Rev Canon Janet Nicholls, pictured here by Gordon Ridgewell on Plough Sunday, gave an inspiring talk

Faith in farming?
The question mark in the title was key, said Rev Canon Janet Nicholls as she introduced her talk to a CPRE Essex audience of 26 people.
Does society have faith in producing good food and looking after the environment?
Indeed, did farmers have that faith?
What if the answer was no?
The questions, of course, kept coming, while Rev Janet would also reflect on what a Christian faith might bring to the table.
She stressed how lucky she was in that, when eating her cottage pie and fruit crumble, she could hear the cattle from her house and enjoy the rest of the meal as locally produced ingredients.
Whereas exotic extravagance might bring food miles, dubious ethics and unknown ingredients, British winter comfort food fed the body, mind and soul, said Rev Janet: “This food enhances my life and my faith in food”.
It was in 1969 that Rev Janet’s family took on the tenancy of an Essex County Council farm – coming from the Midlands, she would be asked if she was American and linked to the USAF base at Wethersfield.
She remembers the excitement of the family running their own farm and appreciates now that they were part of a movement in the 1960s and 70s that was “literally lifesaving”.
Pertinently, given the title of the talk (given on Wednesday, February 23), she doesn’t recall faith in farming ever being questioned; there was an unspoken faith that entailed it being understood and appreciated.
Of course, so few people were involved today in agriculture in comparison with previous years, she said. During her time teaching in schools, Rev Janet had seen a decline to the point where she was now often the only one in a classroom with any kind of agricultural association. She had come to understand how little appreciation of farming now existed – as food became more available, the less respect the industry was accorded. The impact of such a shift was reflected in the morale of farmers.
Rev Janet told how farmers had prided themselves on animal welfare standards and they knew, for example, their turkey would be savoured at Christmas. In contrast, today, with increasing amounts of waste, we were looking more and more not at farm-to-fork but farm-to-landfill.
The speaker said she was becoming increasingly concerned at “the perfect storm” between farmer and consumer. Taking on her role of rural adviser and agricultural chaplain in 2015, Rev Janet considered how she could respond carefully and prayerfully to what she was seeing and hearing.
She had been inspired by a piece by Prince Charles, who had spoken of the “noble tradition of farming”, while she felt her Christian faith could add something to the situation. Much of The Bible had an agricultural setting, while the Church of England had a rich tradition of farming festivals, although they weren’t a fix in themselves.
The question was how we farmed in accordance with creation.
Consistency was important, said Rev Janet, and it was important to acknowledge that every so often attitudes to farming changed… farmers were regarded as key workers during the Covid-19 pandemic; farm shops became go-to places; the countryside became an essential sanctuary during lockdown.
A recent poll had shown 75 per cent of the British public had a positive view of farming – the highest figure since 2012 – but it was also evident how soon people forgot.
Nevertheless, Rev Janet hoped her ministry helped restore faith in farming. She ended with a quote from James Rebanks, author of the book English Pastoral: “I’m proud of our farming… I believe in this landscape and its people.”
With the audience taking to the Zoom screen, Rev Janet answered a question on whether farmers had faith in the church – were they turning to it in times of crisis?
She said the presence of chaplaincies made a difference and there was more likely to be a connection where they existed. Interestingly, the church was in a much stronger position in rural communities as people generally knew each other more there than they did in urban areas – there tended to be greater faith in the church in the countryside.
However, vicars now tended to look after several churches, so they were not identified as much with one church or community.
As for those involved in the agricultural industry, it was difficult to distinguish between professions when talking about faith in the church.
Turning to food wastage, we were told that farmers sometimes could not get the labour necessary to harvest crops. As for us, we should buy only what we needed – or only put on our plate what we would eat. There was a difference between being generous and being irresponsible.
We could all be responsible shoppers in relation to food miles and ethics. Supermarkets wanted our business, so if we stopped buying food from far away we showed we had the power.
In other news, Rev Janet was optimistic about the vibrancy and strength of the young farmers’ community, although she might have given a different answer during the pandemic. For our part, CPRE Essex promised to publicise young farmers’ events on our website.
Finally, our chairman David Knight asked what was the one thing Rev Janet would like to see in the farming community. The answer: an improvement in mental health.
And we’d all agree with that…