Twenty miles outside town, out among corn fields and orchards, we find the driveway marked by an unassuming sign: Plainsong Farm. As we pull in and park on the grass, I’m struck by how ordinary it all looks. Two farm houses, a small barn, a couple of outbuildings, a “hoop” greenhouse, and fields. It’s not exactly idyllic: cars roar by on the busy rural road.
Emily comes to greet us, accompanied by a calico cat called Dandelion. Emily is one of my husband Ron’s former M.Div. students at Western Seminary, and she is now on staff at the farm. She’s tall and slim, with an eager smile, wearing a long skirt and sweater. Then comes Nurya, who looks exactly like an Episcopal priest should—cardigan sweater and clogs, fluttery hand gestures. She sparkles with energy as she walks us around the farm, telling us the story.
“It was one of the few moments of vocational clarity I’ve had,” she says, describing why she started a church-related farm. God gave her the idea, much to her own surprise. She and her husband lived on ten acres of neglected organic farmland and unmown fields, but she knew nothing about farming. She didn’t even know what a church-related farm was. Few people did, back in the early 2000s. But that’s what’s so wonderful about Nurya: she is willing to dive in headfirst, try things, figure it out.
Many years of wrestling followed, some false starts. Nurya was discouraged but undeterred. Finally, as she describes in her book, Resurrection Matters: Church Renewal for Creation’s Sake, Nurya prayed to God: “If you want this to happen, you will have to do it. I can’t do it. But if you do it, I will help.” And then, miraculously, things came together: she and her husband inherited a little money, she found a young couple—Michael and Bethany—who knew the farming end of things and also wanted to create a ministry, and Nurya found another place for her family to live, so Michael and Bethany could live in the house on the land.
Five years in, they’re still learning. They have a CSA going. They give away a lot of food to food pantries. They work with churches who want to start gardens and farms of their own. Last year, they started a program for young adults, who come to the farm and live for twelve weeks in community, gaining farm skills and discerning their own call to do farm-based ministry. And they’ve had a Sunday evening worship time that was well-attended before COVID. These days Emily is helping to devise meditative walks and other opportunities for people who visit the farm.
Emily and Nurya guide Ron and me past the barn. Here are some seedlings set out in trays on a table: basil, lettuces. In the main fields, rows of cherry tomato plants are strung up neatly on cables. Long rows of cabbage, chard, broccoli, rhubarb, potatoes bask in the cool autumn sun. Irrigation hoses snake up and down the rows. Other areas are planted with cover crops to renew the nitrogen in the soil. One square is entirely covered with some kind of tarp, resting. Most of the property is just wild Michigan field: lots of goldenrod, some Queen Anne’s lace, grasses, wildflowers.
I ask questions about nitrogen fixing and farming techniques, but Nurya and Emily can’t always answer. “We’re not the farmers!” they both remind us. “We’re farmer-adjacent!” They’re learning, of course, but mostly Nurya is in charge of managing the nonprofit end of things, fund-raising, and visioning. Emily works on programming. Nurya still serves part-time in a regular Episcopal parish, too.
We turn the corner, around a stand of spruces, and come into the back areas. It’s quieter back here, and the farm is starting to work its magic on me.
Here is where they were growing heirloom wheat for a while. The plan was to work with churches, supplying the wheat for communion bread. Nurya describes an ecumenical group of clergy and church members who came to plant the wheat together. They came back later for a harvest ceremony, in which, accompanied by prayer and scripture and rejoicing, each person cut a sheaf—the firstfruits. You can tell from Nurya’s description that it was a beautiful moment for everyone present. Our communion words—“the grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf”—take on richer meaning when you yourself have done the gathering from a particular field. The heirloom wheat program, unfortunately, is on hold for now: COVID, and some rethinking of their pricing structures.
Now we’ve reached the old orchard, formerly tended by the previous owner, but long neglected. It produces biennially, yielding edible but scruffy-looking apples. And here are the pigs! Several fat pink pigs are penned—with a simple, solar-powered electric fence—into an area that includes a pine grove and a few of the apple trees. These are some happy pigs. They are downright frolicking on the well-trampled ground, their beady eyes bright. They were given to Plainsong by a big ag farm.
Here are the chickens. They’re napping in their little A-frame roost at the moment. Their enclosure includes a big pile of vegetable scraps. “They eat very well,” remarks Nurya.
We walk further into the back area, where they’ve cut some paths through the goldenrod and grasses so that people can come for meditative walks. Emily has been creating opportunities for people to come visit the farm for “Pattern Days.” It’s her way of describing retreat times where people can do simple, spiritual practices in a natural setting. Land-based liturgies.
Now I’m definitely feeling the charm of this place. Here is the fire pit Michael and Bethany built for their community and staff to gather. They have thought about goats. They have thought about a labyrinth. It strikes me that there’s something playful about what they’re doing here. They’re trying things, just to see. There’s a sense of childlike play about it. Farming is a serious, difficult, technical, chancy business. But it’s also tactile, embodied. Playful.
We end our tour in the hoop house, filled right now with tomato plants strung up on carefully engineered lines hooked at the top to a clothesline-like wire. The wire system supports vines heavy with fruits, green and orange and abundant (the ripe ones have been picked). It’s just tomatoes, but it all feels bewitching, like walking through a magical forest.
We settle ourselves into chairs behind the community house to talk more about the Christian food movement and what this farm means in the big picture. In 2001, when Nurya started looking for models for how to combine faith with sustainable farming, she couldn’t find much. “I had read a lot of Wendell Berry! That’s how it begins,” she laughs. But how to create some kind of farm-church connection “wasn’t visible to me.”
Then she read Fred Bahnson’s 2013 book Soil and Sacrament and realized she wasn’t crazy. People were doing this. Churches were organizing community gardens and small farms, trying to combine faith practice, community, discipleship, health, justice. Healing land and community at once, reconnecting faith to place. Nurya started meeting people, making connections. She went down to North Carolina to take a seminar Fred was offering at Wake Forest.
Jewish folk, she discovered, are about ten years ahead, with an extensive, organized network of faith-based farming programs. Christian groups are still struggling to get organized. In the last five years, though, hundreds of faith-based farms and church-sponsored gardens are sprouting up across North America. Nurya can rattle off dozens of names now, people modeling ways to do this and starting to influence others. As Emily describes it, these groups are “rethinking their faith tradition through the lenses of food and ecology. And they’re rethinking food and ecology through the lens of their faith tradition.”
I wonder aloud: what has caused this sudden upsurge? What are people in the church missing or longing for? I suggest that maybe these farms and gardens are a form of refugia, places of experimentation and renewal. They are refugia both from and within the institutional church. Nurya likes that. Plainsong Farm is not a substitute for the regular church, she insists. Yet young people especially “can’t live the usual congregational grind.” They need spaces not too far away from conventional church life, but on the edges. There’s a need for “some kind of relief space.”
Emily and Nurya describe their Sabbath on the Farm program—those Sunday evening gatherings now (sigh) suspended due to COVID. People came for prayer, a meal, to be outdoors together. The gatherings were barely advertised, yet people came, especially young families. What were they hungry for? I ask. Emily has a ready reply: “They were hungry for outdoors, relational, and ecological.”
Clergy came, too. Clergy right now are among the most exhausted, burned-out people in the church. And there’s something healing about connection to place, to a particular piece of land. Emily describes the joy of incarnational faithfulness: “The fact that I can go out and weed something and call that faithfulness—that feels good,” she says.
Even as many affluent, urban people are feeling called to reconnect with place, to interact more faithfully with land and food systems, we are all facing a global climate crisis, and Emily brings up “climate anxiety.” She has been feeling this herself as she learns more about farming and as she recalls dogwoods beloved in her childhood dying from blight. She has been researching species extinctions, and notes that she has seen so few fireflies this season. She hardly knows what to do with this grief.
Ron mentions a new report in the news that very day: across 20,000 different species, population numbers have dropped an average of 68% since 1970. It’s almost too grievous to bear, and we agree that too many church people don’t want to talk about it. It’s so huge and frightening. In Michigan—where we are not currently dealing with raging wildfires or surging hurricanes—we can more easily avoid thinking about climate calamity. “It’s relatively easy, here, now, to wall ourselves off,” Ron observes.
Nurya exclaims: “But that isn’t the practice of Christian discipleship!”
We sit there in silence for a moment: a poignant, heavy moment of quiet grief. We just don’t know what to say.
The church is in transition, Nurya had observed earlier. So much else in the world feels churned up and dire, and the church is caught up in the swirling mess of it all. How we will organize congregations, denominations in the future? Will there be such things? How will the church fit into the larger culture, here in North America and elsewhere? Will new generations belong—or not—to any recognizable church structures? What will faith practices look like? Everything is shifting, we can feel it.
So I’m grateful for people like Nurya and Emily and the Plainsong Farm crew, who are willing to jump in and try things. They are faithfully exploring the edges, moving the edges outward. They are connecting across faiths, partnering with other innovators, creating refugia spaces people can retreat to, even briefly, to find God in new ways. They are seeking even small places of healing, in the hope that healing is possible.
The afternoon is getting cooler, and as Ron and I say our goodbyes, Emily plops two plump eggplants in a paper bag for us to take home. I’ll make them into eggplant parmesan, and say a prayer of thanks.
Many thanks to Nurya Love Parish and Emily Ulmer for their generous hospitality and for permission to publish this essay.