Posted July 22, 2008:
Apostolic Farming in a City

by Peter Thomason.

As I write this, I am looking out my back window at our chicken coop and goat shed. Though this is not an unusual sight for farmers in much of the world, it is unusual for the kind of place where we live. In a city!

Yes, our farm, what we call "an urban-micro-eco-farm," is right in the middle of downtown Ypsilanti, a small, post-industrial city in Michigan.

When Rebecca and I moved to Michigan from Boston in the early days of the Charismatic Renewal to join the Word of God Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we wanted to raise our family with others who shared our desire to work for renewal in the Church and to be a force for good in the world.

We were influenced by Catherine Doherty, Madonna House, Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker, the Grail, Focolare, and other renewal groups whose publications and members had crossed paths with us over the years.

We were especially excited about the idea of apostolic farming as Catherine Doherty described it and as we had witnessed it being lived at Madonna House.

We had had a little experience. Though neither of us had grown up on a farm, each of us had kept backyard chickens for a time. In Michigan where we always lived in urban areas, we dreamed and talked about moving to the country so that we could have a little farm.

Then about five years ago, during a month-long stay at Madonna House, my wife Rebecca worked at their farm with staff worker Mary Davis and came home with a renewed desire to plant, to garden, and to have animals around for food, fun, and manure. But as hard as we tried to sell our house and move to the country, we just couldn’t make it happen.

Finally, about two years ago as I was praying about what we should do, I opened my Bible to Jeremiah 29. In this passage Jeremiah is writing to the Jews who had been deported to Babylon encouraging them to have hope, encouraging them to remember that God has not forgotten or abandoned them. He tells them that, even in a foreign land, they still have a future.

But my attention was drawn to what the Holy Spirit, through the prophet, was telling them to do on a practical day-to-day basis—something that would help them to survive and to continue to do the work of God.

The Lord says this to the exiles deported to Babylon: Build homes, settle down, plant gardens, and eat what you produce; marry and have children; find wives for your sons and husbands for your daughters so that they can have children in their turn. You must increase there and not decrease. Work for the good of the city to which I have exiled you. Pray to God on its behalf since on its welfare yours depends (Jer 29:4-7).

Like us, the Jews in exile wanted their homes to be someplace else, somewhere where they thought life would be better, closer to God, and freer from the negative influence of the culture around them.

But God sees differently than we do. God was saying to them—and to us—that he had put them where they were, and there was work to be done, life to be lived, right there.

He was telling them to stop dreaming about being somewhere else and instead pray and work for the good of the community in which we are living.

Apostolic farming, the relationship with the earth that Catherine described as stewardship, fits beautifully with these words of Jeremiah. Having a large space for agriculture is less important than how we think about and utilize the space we have.

So, literally, we dug in. Using bio-intensive raised-bed and square-foot organic gardening methods, we have gradually transformed our one-tenth-acre city lot into a small urban farm.

By restoring the fertility of the soil through composting, we have been able to grow enough produce for our personal use and still have enough surplus to sell through our local food cooperative. We now also have 44 laying hens, six mini-Nubian dairy goats, and a dozen dwarf rabbits.

It’s hard to describe what has happened through the farming of our little plot. Some of the results are subtle, like the smiles on the faces of our grandchildren and neighbor children when they come over—almost daily—to visit our animals, or the increase in nitrogen-rich manure the animals are providing for our vegetables.

Some results are less subtle, like the float we built for our city heritage festival parade, a float that carried our twelve chickens in a mobile coop pulled by a tractor.

(This float was an event of local interest because we had to engage in some civil disobedience to assert our "right" to farm, an activity which, we discovered, has the protection of Michigan state law.)

Another equally important result of all this activity is the pleasure that comes from interacting with the animals and plants and the satisfaction of knowing that, like our rural counterparts, we are not only consumers but are also able to provide for ourselves.

We are happier and more at peace now, and we certainly feel more at home than we did in the previous twenty years we’ve lived here. Plus we feel that in some way, by our work and our prayer, we are making our city a better place.

E.F. Schumacher, the 20th century English economist who became a Christian late in life by pondering the Church’s social teaching, promoted the idea that "Small is Beautiful" in a book of that name.

Economies, he said, do not need to function on a large industrial scale to be successful. They can be as simple as a home-based business that remains locally focused. The result for those involved is then an experience of "Good Work," the name of the second book in his trilogy.

He believed that for an economy and a culture to be true to the Gospel and to function on the principle that the well being of people matters more than profit, goods and services have to have value that outweighs the monetary value assigned them through the economics of mass production.

I believe that this is why Saint Paul tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil. We usually think that he is saying don’t be greedy, don’t set your heart on wealth, or that he is reminding us of Christ’s statement that we cannot serve both God and Mammon.

I think he is saying all of these things—and more. He does not say that the love of value is the root of all evil; but rather that it is money, that thing which represents value and power, that so easily becomes the object of desire.

The human tragedy that follows from setting our hearts on money is that we lose sight of the real value that we seek in the exchange of goods and services: the mutual satisfaction of our basic needs and the enrichment of our common life.

Urban homesteading in the spirit of apostolic farming is an effort to rediscover the richness of the home economy as a producing, sustainable, Gospel-centered, and vital part of our local community.

If we seek to follow God’s will, the Holy Spirit will give us the power to be a fruitful and positive presence wherever we are. As we marry and have children and grandchildren and nurture the relationships we have with our neighbors and the soil, the life of God in us takes deeper root in our local communities and has a way of making things better—for all of us.

—The Thomasons have ten children and (so far) fourteen grandchildren. For photos and information about their farm and other apostolic involvements, such as economics, faith, health, nutrition, recovery, education, art, etc., see their website:


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