To Serve is to Know

In that time of uncertainty, virtual happy hours, and limited physical social interaction at the start of pandemic last spring a message from one Sunday’s homily hit home…

“If you don’t know what hurts me, you cannot say you love me.”

Or in other words, to be truly loved, you must be truly known. There’s a difference in the ones that have seen us at our worst and know our tears as well as our laughs. It’s the friend that can sense a bad day by the shortness of a response, that person that can tell you need a hug or to be held by the words left unsaid, and the family member that can tell when you need to eat because you’re getting moody. That kind of thing is special- it’s a different kind of love, and it can make a superior impact because it is then- surrounded by those who know us deeply- when we truly let down our guard and simply be our most authentic selves, the part of ourselves that shines even on our worst days.

As we traveled across the Shenandoah Valley from maple farms in Highland County to trout in Rockbridge to poultry and dairy in Rockingham, the heart of the farmer continued to shine when surrounded by a community in which it was truly known. I’m not saying that kind of ‘shine’ can’t happen in the city, but I think the ripple of that shine travels a little bit wider in a small town (or at least ends up in the newspaper).

We saw that shine on our very first visit at the Puffenbarger Sugar Orchard. You could hear the emotion in their voices as they talked about the fire that destroyed their sugar camp where they made maple syrup. Their lives changed instantly, and the family figured it was the end of their time in the maple syrup business- they didn’t see any other way. In that small town spirit, the town saw that hurt and came together to rebuild, to support, to serve and to build so that the Puffenbarger family could continue their family tradition and their county’s heritage in which they were loved for, and thus allowing our class to stock up on delicious Virginia syrup.

As we went on our time through the valley, I saw that need for true understanding in a different light while we listened to the panel on solar energy. The Shenandoah Valley Electric Co-op worked with their various partners, board of supervisors and community members to create an enlightening panel discussion on solar energy in agricultural communities for our class’ benefit. Most people connected to agriculture in Virginia have probably heard this debate by now, and I’m going to sum it up by saying it’s not a black and white issue.

Yes, solar energy should be part of the energy and sustainability conversation, just as agricultural land protection and conservation should be. As we continue this journey of learning to be better AGvocates and serve the rural communities that we value, we must truly know the communities, the issues, the struggles, and the people to truly serve and love these communities, just as certain friends know each of us and just as Highland County knew the Puffenbargers.

As the conversation got heated around the term and connotation of “solar farm,” we were reminded that we have to dig a little deeper than the optics; we could not simply take a term, a connotation, an idea, or a bill at face value. We have to dig deeper, we have to seek to truly comprehend the challenges, and we cannot be content in our service and love without that deeper knowledge. Otherwise, the communities and people that we serve cannot truly shine.

To truly know something whether a person, a community, an industry, or a concept, we must not be afraid to ask the hard questions and “call out the hypocrisy when we see it” as one of our panelists implored us. I think we all took a lot out of the solar energy panel, just as I think the panelists took something from each other as well.

There are bountiful opportunities in agriculture, for our future, and for the communities we serve as a whole. However, just as I am learning to do in my own life, we must take a minute to stop, take a step back and take it all in. Most things in life are part of chains and networks from the supply chain to the life cycle. Although we can appreciate the simplicity of rural living sometimes, it’s not simple, it’s quite complex. Just as photosynthesis is a necessary component of growing grass for cattle to become beef, ensuring access to and supporting every part of the ag supply chain from the veterinarian to the mechanic to the trucker is fundamental to our nation’s thriving and secure food supply. A potential broken supply chain is a pain many in our community face- just as we saw during the pandemic this past year.

So yes, let’s talk about solar energy, organic food, non-meat protein sources, and all the buzz words that we see relating to agriculture, sustainability and our food system. But let’s remember to look past the initial optics, to look past the pretty pictures and the fancy labels. Let us have a conversation about integrity, community development, the possible erosion of the supply chain, and the greater impacts to identify the bias and to stand for something greater- not just a pretty picture.

You see, agriculture (and rural communities) do not fit into a tiny perfect box. As such, we cannot truly serve when we try to put them in a simple box without discernment of the good and the bad. We have to be willing to meet people where they are and have those conversations because that heart of the farmer and that shine is worth getting to know, protecting and polishing.

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