Photos courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary’s Farminary
Princeton Theological Seminary’s sustainable farm helps teach prospective theologians about the meaning of life
By Ilene Dube
It was a blustery day when I went to visit Princeton Theological Seminary’s (PTS) Farminary. The property — 21 acres off Princeton Pike — includes a few outbuildings and a pond. Chickens and bees are lovingly cared for in this serene agricultural oasis.
Suddenly a flock of geese took off from the pond, filling the sky with a chorus of honking and chattering. “The geese are our neighbors,” says Farminary Founder and Director Nathan Stucky. “They remind us we are all bodies in need of food, shelter, and warmth.”
I first learned about the Farminary listening to NPR’s “On Being,” when host Krista Tippett interviewed journalist and Farminary alum Jeff Chu.
Chu had had a revelatory moment gazing into the compost pile, but his love affair with the rotting vegetables, banana peels, and coffee grounds was not of the at-first-sight variety. His initial reaction: “I thought it was disgusting,” Chu told Tippett, “it was … all these things we would typically see as trash, as waste, which gets carted off to a landfill out of our sight.”
What changed it all for Chu was when “Nate told us to dig around and look for signs of new life.”
That taught Chu that there is an opportunity to “steward death well when death happens, which it will — not erasing the pain, not erasing the brutality, but acknowledging both it and the possibilities that still remain, afterwards … I refuse to believe that death is the end of the story.”
And that’s what Stucky hopes everyone will get from the Farminary.
On its website, it is described as an experiment in sustainable agriculture. “The Farminary is a place where theological education is integrated with small-scale regenerative agriculture to train faith leaders who are conversant in the areas of ecology, sustainability, and food justice,” it notes. “It is designed to train students to challenge society’s 24/7 culture of productivity by following a different rhythm, one that is governed by the seasons and Sabbath.”
The Farminary had been especially meaningful during the pandemic. Not far from the pond beloved by the geese is a gathering spot with picnic tables. When classes had to be held online, the Farminary could still bring people together in person, in a safe outdoor space.
“It was a rewarding moment,” says Stucky. “Folks had been cooped up with their screens, and this was an opportunity to connect. To gather around a table with people felt more human. We realized we are completely dependent on the land.”
“They said we needn’t buy books; our personal stories would serve as primary texts,” writes Chu in Modern Farmer. “The answers began to emerge during our first gathering,” when each seminarian was asked to describe the soils they’d come from. “We were Black, brown, yellow, white; conservative and liberal; poor and rich; various gradations of Protestant; reared on four continents.” One student who grew up accompanying her Army-officer father on globe-trotting assignments declared, “I am a child of many soils.”
Farminary Founder and Director Nathan Stucky addresses participants at the Just Food Conference at the Farminary.
Continuing the Loop
The harvest from the Farminary’s compost-enriched soil is used by dining services when the seminary is in session, and during the summer the Farminary offers CSA shares to the greater seminary community. The food loop includes taking scraps from dining services and composting them with autumn leaves from campus.
A large fenced-in area protects crops from the deer and other animal invaders. Stucky undoes the latch and takes me into the well-secured hoop house — what he calls a caterpillar tunnel — where collards and all kinds of kale, from curly and red Russian to lacinato, are robust and green despite it being winter.
As idyllic as it may seem, there are lessons in the tragedies, which are a part of the process. After the hurricane of fall 2021, floodwaters contaminated the land and hundreds of pounds of produce had to be composted; 125 chickens were lost.
“It was gut-wrenchingly awful,” says Stucky, holding back tears. “One of our persistent questions is, ‘What is it like to listen to the land?’ Catastrophic flooding is telling us something about how human development is affecting how water flows. With all the impervious surfaces development creates, water has to go somewhere.”
Stucky connects the ecological situation with theology. “In seminary, we are always wrestling with the idea, where is God? We are a Christian seminary and have a deep conviction there is a God, but it’s a myth that a seminary should have God figured out. If there’s no mystery, that’s not God.”
Regarding the climate crisis, Stucky says he’s pro-science, and that people of faith can embody science — it is not mutually exclusive. “The Farminary teaches us to approach the question of who God is with humility, and close to the ground. The soil under our feet may be telling us who God is.”
The seminary purchased the land as an investment in 2010, but it didn’t become the Farminary until 2015. Stucky, who grew up on a farm in Kansas — his family raised cattle, wheat, and hay — majored in alto saxophone at the private Christian liberal arts Bethel College in Kansas. Never expecting to pursue a career in music, Stucky moved to Maryland with his wife, Janel, a registered nurse, where he worked as a youth pastor. After six years he returned to Kansas for a two-year stint working on a sustainable farm.
“Although I had a love for the land, I wasn’t called to it,” says Stucky. “I had an intense vocational discernment.” He enrolled at PTS in 2007, first for a master’s degree and then a doctorate in practical theology.
It was another student who suggested he combine his interests in farming and theology, and the name “farminary” was suggested in jest. It took a while to figure out how to put everything into place. “The Bible starts in a garden,” Stucky said. But there were no other farminaries out there.
With support from a mentor, the idea was pitched to PTS President Craig Barnes, who was receptive — what better way to use that 21-acre agricultural parcel — and a pilot course was launched. There were spreadsheets and production goals, and soon the idea took off.
Because the land had once been used as a sod farm, the soil was severely depleted of nutrients. Again, listening to the land is important, says Stucky. “What it’s telling us is that we live in an exhausted world.”
Stucky has a thing or two to say about exhaustion. In his book, Wrestling with Rest, he writes, “busyness is a sickness of the soul … it is especially detrimental to young people, who are finding their identity shaped by ongoing resume-building, constant digital communication, and unceasing activity. The last thing they have time for is rest. But rest — Sabbath — is necessary for youth, not just because of who they are socially, emotionally, and physiologically, but because of who God has made them to be and wants them to be.”
“God created the world in seven days, but culminates on the seventh day with resting,” Stucky says before we part. “Our world is embroiled in ecological devastation, a pandemic that doesn’t want to end, and more dysfunction in our political system than anyone can bear. What is needed is rest. We need to change the story — the high point is not mass consumption, but rest. We are living in a world that is desperate for rest. We’re in this moment of multiple fatigues stacked on top of each other. Just stop for a second.”
Beehives at the Farminary.