Simple Stewards

June 3, 2004

For further reading see our Web Extra story Elephants In The Garden And Other Stories Of Simplicity.

Dale Barron
Dale Barron, BS '86. WHRF Development Director. Photo by Clark Baker

The steady putt-putt-putt of a John Deere tractor breaks the early morning stillness. A truck carrying several goats rattles down the stony path that leads from an outlying pasture to the main road. Eggs have been gathered and placed in recycled cartons, and the chickens and rabbits have been fed and watered. The sun has just spread across the horizon, but the day already is in full swing at the World Hunger Relief Farm. Each of the five full-time farm interns is downing a typical breakfast of eggs and goat's milk, both produced on the farm. After a devotion together, they begin their daily assignments -- planting, weeding, harvesting or maintaining livestock. Some work on special projects such as developing a new grazing rotation for the goats.

Following lunch, interns attend classes covering topics ranging from agriculture and livestock to cross-cultural issues and Christian mission approaches. Later, some of them will go to their part-time jobs and homes off the farm and some will retire to the farm's dormitory, fitted with composting toilets, ceiling fans (no air-conditioning) and wood-stove heaters.

Micah Pasgucci
Micah Pasgucci, a farm resident and volunteer, carries seedlings. Photo by Matt Lester

"Being at the farm has taught me to live simply," says Jennifer Daniel, an intern who graduated with a master's degree in social work from Baylor in May. "I have learned that a life devoted to sharing with others, protecting the environment, not wasting and keeping for yourself only what you truly need is a life well-lived. I hope I can keep these truths and forever carry them with me." Located nine miles north of Baylor's campus, the 42-acre farm is a living, working laboratory for sustainable agricultural and animal husbandry to help alleviate hunger in drought-stricken areas of the world. As such, it is an irresistible draw for many Baylor students in environmental studies, social work, international studies and George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Since the farm began in 1976, about 100 students have interned there and thousands have volunteered, along with several faculty and staff, says Dale Barron, BS '86, the farm's development director. "The work we do here, you can touch, smell and feel," he says. "At the end of the day, you can see people are being helped."

chicken tractor
An intern feeds the laying hens in the "chicken tractor", a movable coop that helps clear, prepare and fetilize the garden soil. Photo by Matt Lester

In addition to five Baylor interns, seven other people live at the farm: an Ethiopian agriculturalist, a married couple who volunteer, and farm manager Brad Stufflebeam, his wife and their two children.

All practice good stewardship of the earth: They grow their own vegetables to eat; use no inorganic chemicals or pesticides on the crops; raise goats, sheep and rabbits for milk and meat; keep bees for honey; ride bikes for transportation; and recycle everything possible. They're not just living out personal convictions; they believe these practices can help alleviate world hunger.

"Mostly, World Hunger Relief is trying to figure out where there is injustice and where there are needs, how to get the systems to respond to the needs and how to connect or reach people with resources and provide training and education," Barron says. Life on the farm is not an escape from the complexities of the outside world, he adds, although some may see it as a spiritual oasis. A large part of its purpose is to educate people about world poverty and how simple methods, such as those they practice, can impact it. "It attracts people who are serious about living by the Gospel values of simplicity, communion and support," Barron says.

Sara Alexander, BA '79, was an undergraduate when she met and began working with one of the farm's early developers, Carl Ryther. "Baylor was first involved when I was an undergraduate student, when Carl was putting his agricultural projects together to get things started," says Alexander, now associate professor of environmental studies and anthropology at Baylor. At that time, she helped Ryther establish the farm and through the years has served as a liaison between the farm and the University, recruiting interns and volunteers from her classes. Alexander also serves as a board member for World Hunger Relief Inc., the nonprofit umbrella organization that oversees the farm, and she is working with farm administrators to develop new curriculum for interns. "It's nice for me to have such a facility so close because the World Hunger Relief Farm and the training that they do reinforce what I teach in my classes," Alexander says. "Part of my attraction is that they are very strongly committed to their calling, and they do a lot of good with very few resources -- that parallels the situation in many Third World countries."

Barron volunteered and donated to the farm for years before joining its staff in November 2000. After 10 years as a professional social worker, he saw in World Hunger Relief's mission an opportunity to apply his social work expertise at community and international levels. He now shares his knowledge as an adjunct professor in Baylor's School of Social Work. "The best part about working at the farm is being able to live out my values and beliefs in the workplace," he says. Helen Harris, full-time lecturer in the School of Social Work, met with Barron while he was transitioning to his new position. "We talked about his role there and the possibility of students getting involved," says Harris, who coordinates in-field internships for social work students. "For some students, that means working in a clinical or therapy situation. For others, that means working toward system change. The placement at World Hunger Relief Farm is geared toward systemic change."

Student internships at the site are time-intensive, requiring about 30 hours per week. Four of Harris' students in recent years have made the two-year commitment, which earns them four hours of credit toward a bachelor's degree and up to eight hours for a master's degree. Although social work interns have lived both on and off the farm, those who commute are more likely to write grants, recruit volunteers and organize training or serve as entry-level professionals, Harris says. "The philosophy at World Hunger Relief Farm affirms our position in the School of Social Work that we care about you, and in addition to telling you, we will show it," she says.

Scott Taylor, MSW/MDiv '03, now a research associate for the School of Social Work, spent 10 days in February 2003 at World Hunger Relief-Haiti, the farm's sister organization, working on his final research project and interviewing people in the town of Ferrier. "One family had three or four children and they were struggling to provide for their kids, yet they invited me in and fed me oranges," Taylor says. "There's a hospitality there that gives you a whole different perspective about what living, sharing and being in community means."

The two organizations are autonomous, but the farm donates money to WHR-Haiti and its projects, and it serves as a base for field trips for Baylor students and other interns. Farm volunteers also collect and repair bicycles that are sent to Haiti to be sold to fund projects, and volunteers are building a school there. The farm was founded in 1976 by Waco real estate developers Bob and Jan Salley, who organized and chartered World Hunger Relief Inc., aimed at developing agricultural technologies that could improve foreign and domestic hunger problems. Three years later, Ryther and his family joined the effort after completing 17 years of agricultural mission work in Bangladesh. Based on his experiences, Ryther developed simple food production systems that could be adopted easily in developing countries. Until his death in 1999, Ryther nurtured the organization with his vision and fundamental agricultural programs designed to help the hungry. His Backyard Food Production System, demonstrated in a small, self-sustainable vegetable bed, is a mainstay at the farm and has been taught and reproduced around the world.

From 1993 to April 2003, the farm's executive director was Lee Piché, who met Ryther during a visit to World Hunger Relief-Haiti. Piché and Ryther molded the enterprise into the resource it is today, developing a training center with market gardens, wild and improved pastures, a dairy farm and strengthening the internship program. They also built the community education center, which is largely constructed of straw bales, another example of using available resources. Current executive director Neil Rowe Miller, who holds a degree in plant pathology from Cornell University, came in August 2003. Before coming to Central Texas, Miller and his family spent a decade in Uganda and Haiti with the Mennonite Central Committee and then moved to northern Michigan, where he worked with for-profit farmers. "From a personal standpoint, it's exciting to see skills I've learned in two very different worlds used together here," he says. His goals include revamping the internship program, developing a curriculum that he hopes will be incorporated into Baylor's School of Social Work or environmental studies program, expanding the missionary program and educating people in the local community about hunger issues.

Miller also would like to increase the number of full-time interns to six, at least two from other countries. Currently, the interns are making much-needed improvements to the farm's dormitory. More than 400 international and domestic interns have been trained at the site, many from developing countries such as Haiti, Guatemala and Kenya, and others from Europe and Asia. Interns also have come from Oregon, New Hampshire and Texas. This spring, a volunteer from Spain was building a well house from straw bales. "We get a lot of applicants, mostly from Africa, but have problems getting visas for them," Miller says. Barron, who coordinates many of the internships, says, "We want to make a dent in the issue of hunger by empowering people to grow their own food and develop the land where they live." Catrien Van Assendelft, the farm's curriculum developer, earned her degree at Yale University in forestry and theology. She and Miller are working on a written curriculum for interns that includes agricultural techniques, animal husbandry, global economics and politics, community development and other disciplines. Barron wants the farm to equip missionaries with new methods on their way to the field and be a place for readjustment when they return on furlough. Agricultural missionaries also can be a resource for valuable information. "We don't want to operate independently from people who are actively working overseas. We need to know what new problems they are encountering or what solutions they have found to old problems," he says.

In addition to training interns to serve internationally, the farm strives to educate the local community about hunger issues. When it comes to hands-on exposure, the farm is a perfect classroom. A small self-sustainable vegetable garden modeled after Ryther's food production method is the first stop when Barron takes visitors on tours. At the corner of the broccoli bed, there is a row of rabbit hutches. Worms in the soil beneath the hutches process the rabbit waste, which is used as fertilizer for the vegetables. The broccoli bed is surrounded by a tropical plant called Leucaena, which is an added source of minerals and vitamins, and provides shade for the rabbits and vegetables. White meat protein, vitamins, vegetables and all basic nutrients are present in this system, Barron says.

To help allay maintenance costs, the farm has established the Community Supported Agriculture program, led by Stufflebeam, who has spent more than 13 years in the field of horticulture, including 10 years in organic food production. Local community members who subscribe to CSA pledge to purchase the farm's organic produce weekly. Normally held only in the spring, CSA also ran successfully last fall with 30 members, half the number of spring members, and now is available twice a year. Customers also can purchase fresh eggs, goat's milk -- known for its nutritional value and bottled in the farm's certified Grade-A dairy facility -- and all-natural fertilizer. Stufflebeam says that the farm is one of the few places to purchase fresh produce grown locally. He plans to sell goat meat to the public soon.

The organization also operates various community education programs that offer information about global poverty and world hunger and provide simulated hunger experiences.

Local donations make up 65 percent to 70 percent of the farm's funding, but Miller hopes to broaden the constituency base beyond Texas to strengthen financial support and recruit interns. He also wants to work more closely with local farmers, who can serve as a great resource for interns. "We can teach interns how to grow crops in Central Texas, but the real issue is getting beyond planting seeds to working with people," Miller says. Stufflebeam sums up the farm's purpose even more succinctly: "It's a place for us to understand each other and our Father's world."