Western North Carolina has long been home to thoughtfully designed, diverse agricultural systems. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was the Farmers Federation — an early pioneer of the cooperative farming system — which stimulated and accelerated farming success across the region. Then, after the historic decline of tobacco, along came a new wave of vegetable, mushroom, fruit and flower cultivation.
Today, organizations such as the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and the Organic Growers School have bolstered the region’s reputation as a laboratory space for organic, sustainable and resilient agricultural methods. Yet, despite WNC’s history of agricultural knowledge and abundance, the legacy of Jewish farming — and its deep wisdom surrounding food security, land ownership and community building — has remained shrouded in relative obscurity.
At the Fairview-based Yesod Farm + Kitchen, an emergent farm and educational space, Jewish farmers Sarah Seldin and Shani Mink are working to change that narrative. In March 2019, after connecting at a food justice conference a few years prior, the duo officially founded the Jewish Farmer Network, a national nonprofit that defines itself as seeking to cultivate and support a network of farmers who will “envision a world of social and ecological justice, where life in all forms is honored.” To accomplish this vision, members are reaching back and learning from ancient Judaic wisdom, which they believe has much to offer the contemporary world of agriculture.
Seldin and Mink are not alone in their endeavor. Across the country, an increasing number of Jewish-identifying farmers are seeking to connect with their spiritual roots and sow together what has long felt like two disparate identities. Since the early 2000s, greater numbers of Jewish farms and support organizations have been cropping up, including the Jewish Farm School in Philadelphia and the Adamah organic agriculture fellowship in New York City.
However, despite this recent uptick, Seldin, who previously worked locally at Root Cause Farm and Living Web Farms, says that many Jewish farmers, including herself, have struggled with what she calls “double invisibility.”
“Farmers don’t necessarily think of Jews farming, and Jews don’t think about each other farming,” she explains. “So if you’re a Jewish farmer, your community doesn’t see you or expect you to be there. There’s also an inherent loneliness that comes with farming, particularly in rural areas as a result of that physical isolation.”
In fact, a huge source of inspiration behind founding the Jewish Farmer Network, says Seldin, was an extremely active Facebook group named “Jewish Farmer Network” that Seldin helped launch in 2017. After just two days, she recalls, the group swelled to 200 members. Today, there are more than 800 members from around the globe.
“It was clear we had tapped into a deep interest,” Seldin says. “One of the biggest takeaways from our conversations was that agriculture is actually how many of us express our Judaism in the world.”
She observes that many people may have felt a need to step away from Judaism in order to farm. “We hear from so many people whose decision to farm is met with confusion or derision,” she says, noting the importance of having a community that says, “Actually, what you’re doing is really important ecologically. It’s not a repudiation of your tradition but actually an affirmation of your tradition.”
Check the script
Those affirmations can be found within the earliest examples of the Jewish Torah and Mishnah in traditions such as gleaning, tithing and shmita (the practice of allowing cultivated land to lie fallow once every seven years).
“A theological premise that goes throughout the Jewish tradition is that there’s no such thing as private ownership,” explains Rabbi Justin Goldstein, who recently left his position at Congregation Beth Israel to become a scholar-in-residence at Yesod, where the Jewish Farmer Network is headquartered.
“The only entity that can actually possess land in perpetuity is the creator of the earth,” says Goldstein. Because of the individual’s lack of true ownership, he explains, any produce that is grown from the earth ultimately belongs to God, which means that a certain percentage of food is meant to be shared with the most vulnerable members of society. “If you withhold it, you’re stealing from them,” he maintains.
The practice of gleaning is one way that principle has been implemented. In the Jewish tradition, crops growing in the corners, or those that have been forgotten or dropped in the fields are not to be harvested.
The same concept applies to trees, vines or other plants that have been pruned. “Anything that grows past that point, you don’t harvest,” Goldstein explains. “There’s also a whole series of more home-based and urban-based safety nets for communal food pantries and food funds.”
Another means of support is an elaborate system called tithing, a kind of self-tax that instructs farmers to set aside 10% of their harvest and designate certain percentages of that to communal institutions, celebrations and the poor. The tithes occur twice annually for a period of six years, until year seven arrives and farming operations halt for the year of intentional, agricultural recession called shmita.
“All fences are taken down, animals are given access to what previously was protected, and no one is allowed to sow any seed. No one is allowed to plow or till or do anything. The land has to stay completely fallow,” explains Goldstein. This cycle allows the soil to rest, regenerate and avoid exhausting its nutrients. During this time, it’s tradition for all debts to also be released.
After seven of those cycles of shmita, Goldstein continues, there’s jubilee — a time when all agricultural work stops and the land is returned to its ancestral owners. “The jubilee is a hard economic reset. The design of it is to prevent an unfettered economic gap,” he says. “And what the Torah creates, what our ancestors created, is the system that keeps that process in check. It recognizes that in order for us to have a society grounded in equity, we need to be responsible and mindful in both our marketplaces and our farm field and the relationship between the two.”
Making it modern
Of course, while these traditions are fascinating and speak to powerful values and traditions, translating these ideas into contemporary agriculture isn’t entirely straightforward. At the Jewish Farmer Network’s inaugural conference, Cultivating Culture: A Gathering of Jewish Farmers, more than 120 Jewish farmers will gather in Reisterstown, Md., Feb. 13-16 to discuss how to mobilize this ancestral wisdom to create a more just and regenerative food system. According to Seldin, this will be the first publicly recorded gathering of Jewish farmers since 1914.
“We have these systems that our ancestors designed and we can debate with how they’re actually put into place. But how do we apply that system from another place in time to wherever we are today, and how do we connect people to the reality that we have these systems to look back to in creating the world we want to live in?” Seldin muses.
For Seldin, Mink and Goldstein, Yesod is a place to practice implementing these Jewish agricultural values at a small scale. This winter, the team is crafting a business plan for farm operations which will seek to include the concepts of shmita, tithing and gleaning. The farm has already hosted several retreats and, come springtime, will offer educational workshops and classes.
“In five years, the hope is to have a bunch of fruit and nut trees, to be growing annual crops and to be having community workdays and meals, celebrating Jewish holidays on the land and connecting people to the embodied experience of stewarding land and practicing Jewishness,” Seldin reflects.