A co-worker recently told me that 69 million people play Farmville, Facebook’s on-line farming game. 69 million people!? As one who generally takes an Amish-like view of technology (is this really good for the community?), I am skeptical of the benefits, or even the fun, of Farmville. So I did what any self-respecting food grower would do: I asked my husband to play it. And I asked all the college students I know about it.
My questions probably sounded crazy – how is growing food portrayed on Farmville? Are there organic Farmville farms? Do Farmville animals get slaughtered for meat? What is the attraction? Why are so many people involved? I wanted to know if Farmville cheapens what I do as a ministry and a living. Susan, our sustainable agriculture intern from UNC, could earn extra credit in her class by trying to practice sustainable agriculture on her Farmville farm. Not easy to do, apparently. When I asked her if Farmville makes growing food seem ridiculously easier than it really is, her answer was “absolutely!” (This is from a girl who just spent 3 hours turning compost and hoeing weeds.)
On Farmville, strawberries are planted, grow, and are ready to harvest in about 4 hours. Wouldn’t my strawberry farmer friends love that! Growing organically or no-till are not Farmville options. Monoculture farming is encouraged. (Did the big agribusiness companies have a hand in making this game?) Farmville animals seem more like pets than the food source they are outside of cyberspace. Exotic farm animals on Farmville aren’t feather-footed chickens or heritage breed cattle; they are elephants and pandas. These are all the things about Farmville that make me shake my head in despair.
It seems, however, that Farmville does have some redeeming qualities. My husband states that one of the attractions of Farmville is that you grow your farm best with the help of your friends. Well, strawberries may not really go from seedling to harvest in 4 hours, but at least that is accurate! Working together to grow food accomplishes more in reality as well as in cyberspace. We call it community gardening. Still, does growing fake food on a computer build real community? Is it good for you?
Another attraction my college-age friends mentioned was that it is “just cool to grow something”. Yes, it is. That’s a big reason why I do what I do. God created humans with a desire to nurture and sustain life. Planting and tending crops is one of the ways we can do that. But have we moved so far away from nature and so close to technology that growing crops on a computer screen can truly fulfill this desire? I hope not.
For anyone who seeks a real Farmville experience, get away from your screen and join a community garden. Learn to grow something good to eat. Talk to a friend while you plant, tend, water, and pick. Get connected with a real piece of land and your neighbors. Your strawberries won’t be ready to harvest in four hours, but the relationships you develop will last much longer than a blip on the computer screen. As Deuteronomy 16:15 tells us, “The Lord will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.”
The sun on our backs, the feel of soil in our hands, the sweat on our brows – clicking a mouse can’t compare.
I recently finished reading Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. It’s a memoir of author Mildred Kalish’s childhood and family life on a farm in the 1930′s, a delightful and engaging story. But also a disturbing and challenging one. Often, I found myself wondering how we as a society have distanced ourselves so much from the kind of life that Millie led on the farm… and called it progress.
Kalish tells humorous stories of the adventures on the farm of the Big Kids and the Little Kids in her family. I especially liked the story of how the kids had some play time one day and decided they would dig to China – really dig to China. (I remember having similar grand plans as a child, but I think ours involved the Eiffel Tower.) Working as a team, with Big Kids digging, and Little Kids hauling away the dirt, they dug what must have been a very large hole on the edge of the woods on their farm. All was going well until one of the uncles had to go out at dusk to catch a runaway pig. As the chase ensued, the pig went on past, but the unsuspecting uncle fell straight down into the “tunnel”! Can you imagine the look on his face? Of course, the children then had to haul all that dirt back and refill the hole. That builds character.
Kalish also shares details of life on the farm: how they grew their food; how they cared for their livestock; how they built and repaired the equipment they needed to run the farm; how the family all worked together. Of course there was never-ending work that went into preparing meals (no fast food restaurants around for those days when they didn’t feel like cooking), but Kalish also shares the joy and closeness of the family kitchen at meal times. She tells how to make foods from days gone by (head cheese, anyone?) and of the delicious, simple meals they shared straight from the garden. Farm animals were an integral part of their lives and were well cared for. And even the kids knew how to operate and fix things on the farm.
The spirit of community living and cooperation shines throughout Little Heathens. Extended family helps each other. Teachers are revered mentors. Church is a place of comfort and nurture. Neighbors are necessary and are considered friends. The children all had daily chores – even the very youngest picked peas or fed the chickens – which might sound foreign, maybe even abusive, in today’s culture. Kalish tells that the children knew they were a vital part of the family’s survival, and it seems they gained, not self-esteem (today’s buzz word) from it, but self-worth and self-confidence. This is the disturbing and challenging part to me: for those of us who don’t rely on farming for our livelihood today (we who can turn on a machine to wash our dishes and our clothes, order take-out meals so we don’t have to cook, and just go to a store for everything we need to live), do we have a spirit of community living and cooperation? Are we including our children in the vital functioning of the family? Do we, and our children, have a sense of belonging and purpose, of self-worth and self-confidence?
Can a place like The Community Farm foster this? This week we have begun a new plan for farming at Chestnut Ridge: we are accepting a limited number of memberships to the community garden at The Community Farm. We’re seeking to partner with folks who want to grow good food and good friendships in the garden. I’ve experienced the joy and sharing of a community garden before – it has been literally life-changing for me. My great hope is that we can work together to create a place at The Community Farm where all people, of all ages, who come will feel a sense of welcome and belonging, of their value to our community.
Gardening is hard work, but when it is done in community, high spirits abound.