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Back to the Homestead

by Evelyn Allen

Before five o’clock in the morning, an alarm signals the start of the day for Craig ’08 and Jen (Wagner ’09) Thompson. Before the sun crests over the peaks that lie to the east of Scott Valley, a long day of work stands between the Thompsons and the eventual sunset beyond the westerly Marble Mountain Wilderness in far Northern California. The Thompsons must feed more than 1,000 animals before they touch their own breakfast at the Rockside Ranch and co-op they run in the tiny city of Etna along State Route 3, where they tend 50 acres of pasture and 50 more of woodlands.

Although many imagine the simplicity of a rural lifestyle, anyone in the agriculture industry would laugh at that notion. In reality, the vocation requires a tightrope-taut balance of meticulous planning and endless flexibility. Several Azusa Pacific alumni tend small farms and testify that the days are packed with truly laborious work, bookended by prayer for provision of a literal harvest. “Once you get your hands in the soil and watch something you put into the ground grow and flourish, you’re going to do it for the rest of your life,” said Keith Saarloos (attended ’94–’98) of his family-run vineyard and winery, Saarloos and Sons, in Los Olivos, California. “Some people pray for bread to eat, but the farmer gets out there, plants the wheat, and thanks God when it rains. It’s an honor to work this hard.”

Running a business dependent on the ground requires a combination of careful planning and tenacity, said Andrew Moeller ’10, who farms almonds and grapes on family land in California’s Central Valley alongside his father and brother. “Each and every year, we trust God that a sufficient crop will keep us going for the following year,” he said. The family plans for seasonal tasks on Moeller Farms: preparing fields, planting trees, fertilizing soil, and applying water, all in anticipation of a late-summer harvest. Each day brings something new—and sometimes unexpected. “If the tractor breaks down, or you notice a fallen tree to clean up, you get out there and do it,” said Moeller. And that’s when he’s not tending to his part-time accounting business. Moeller studied accounting at APU, an education that prepared him to serve not only the family farm, but also clients with multifaceted financial needs in his region’s agriculture sector.

The modern world demands this duality from smaller-scale producers and growers. Most strive to uphold traditions passed down through generations, but they must also adapt to fresh possibilities. “The farmer’s traditional way of life has become harder to maintain in our economy,” said Dean Doerksen ’76, a tree-nut broker for Central Ag Products, which facilitates the exchange of some 60 million pounds of almonds each year from growers to packers. “But technology does make the world smaller and provides farmers with new tools.” He points to GPS-guided planting and precise weather prediction and temperature monitoring. These widely available advancements—accessible from the field on mobile devices—allow farmers to maximize efficiency and safeguard sensitive crops.

The farmer can also harness technology to create demand for a specialized product. “There is a movement happening very quietly at the intersection of technology and small-scale agriculture,” said Saarloos. “A mom-and-pop operation can harvest honey, bottle it with a nice label, and then market and sell it all over the country thanks to the Internet. The pendulum is swinging back toward the homestead, because a small farm creating something exceptional can now reach anyone through an online storefront.”

The Thompsons see themselves as part of this subtle generational shift. “Craig and I felt something missing in today’s world,” said Jen. “Like many people, we were looking for meaning in life and something we could deeply commit to.” The homegrown products Rockside Ranch sells locally and online provide financial support for a ministry they set out to nurture after they married in 2010. Their ministry serves at-risk young men coming out of California’s correctional system who apply to live and work for a full year at the ranch. The men gain trade experience and skills as part of a Christ-centered community that aims to set them up for personal and spiritual success once they leave—the true heart and purpose of the ranch.

Those human connections represent the core of farming. As present-day farmers walk the line between leading a traditional lifestyle and bringing innovation to their calling, the common thread that weaves throughout generations remains the relationship between the farmer and the consumer, and the farmer and the earth. The hands that lovingly labor to work the land not only feed people in the most literal sense, but they also create thriving enterprises that fuel industry and redemptive ministries. And like the seeds planted in good soil, they yield a hundred times what was sown.

Evelyn Allen is a writer and editor in the Office of University Relations. eallen@apu.edu

Originally published in the Spring '14 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).