In 2007 Nathan T. Stucky left the Kansas land he’d been farming to study for a master’s degree in divinity at the Princeton Theological Seminary. But despite bright prospects for furthering his life and faith, his thoughts were troubled, his soul not rejoicing.
“I have a vivid memory of driving away from the farm, in the moving truck, headed east to New Jersey, and thinking to myself, ‘Those years might have been a complete waste,’” he says.
But the time had not been wasted, any more than the moldering vegetables in a compost pile — destined to give nutrition to new plants — are considered waste.
Today, Nate, as he prefers to be called, is an ordained Mennonite minister who holds a doctor of divinity, and is founding director of “The Farminary Project” — a formal course in which a small working farm just outside Princeton becomes the setting for spiritual insights and growth.
During recent conversations in his seminary office and the school-owned Farminary, Stucky told his story to a visiting journalist. This writer came with no religious agenda (although raised as a Protestant Christian, for a variety of theological reasons he does not identify as a Christian).
However, the journalist has good friends who are Amish — theological Anabaptist cousins to the Mennonites — so he came with an awareness of the centrality of farming not only to the economic and spiritual lives of Anabaptists, but to many religions.
For example, the word “seminary” itself literally means “a place that holds seeds,” manifesting its purpose in growing and nurturing religious teachers and leaders. In the Judeo-Christian creation story God shapes the first human from the soil; in the original Hebrew his name “Adam” means “of the earth.” And the teaching parables of Jesus in the Christian Gospels frequently employ agrarian metaphors.
So the notion of a “farminary” is by no means odd. “One of the many lessons that the farm teaches — every farm, but especially this one — is that life usually comes to us only through death,” Stucky says. “It’s true of the chicken I had for dinner last night. It’s true of the carrot I had for lunch: It had to kind of give up its life so that I could go on living.”
“The compost pile in particular has been an absolutely crucial site for teaching, for theological reflection, for reflection on life. You put in banana peels and apple cores, and they kind of pass away. But something new comes out of that, which to me as a Christian theologian sounds like death and resurrection.”
Nate Stucky was born into a Mennonite family that raised cattle and grew wheat on their farm in Pretty Prairie, Kansas. Although most Mennonites are more accepting of automobiles and telephones — and also tractors and mechanized combines — than their Amish brothers and sisters, they still place careful limits on technologies that can induce distraction or pride. (It is characteristic that Stucky, who is plain in speech, dress, and manner, contently uses an old-style cell phone that has no email or internet access.)
Stucky’s dad farmed their land until the mid-1980s, when a combination of low farm prices and a chronically bad back made that work untenable. “But we were able to stay on the farm,” Stucky says. “I worked for local farmers in high school and college.”
His wife, Janel, hails from Oklahoma, but her family, Koblenz, were originally Amish from Ohio. Today the couple live in Princeton and have two sons and a daughter. In addition to caring for the kids Janel is a substitute school nurse in the Princeton Public Schools.
Married right after Stucky graduated from Bethel College in Kansas, they moved east when Stucky took a position as a youth minister at a Mennonite church in the lower reaches of the Maryland Eastern Shore.
But an opportunity arose to farm full-time back in Kansas. Stucky took it. But, as he now wryly recalls, the following two years “pretty quickly became a season of intense vocational discernment.”
The pull of the spirit proved even stronger than the pull of the soil. “I had to own up to a sense of call to ministry, a call to serve,” he explains. In 2007 he relocated with his wife and children to earn a master’s degree at Princeton Theological Seminary.
“At that point I assumed my love of agriculture and my sense of service and ministry were two different things,” he says. “I had no way to connect farming with that sense of call I had to the ministry.”
Stucky eventually had an epiphany about this unnecessary duality. However, he adds, “It was a slow epiphany.”
While in the two-year master of arts program, he was persuaded to switch to a three-year master of divinity degree track, then to enter the doctor of divinity program.
If preachers frequently find a moral to a story, Stucky certainly has one, and it’s about his wife: “Janel’s a saint. She thought she was coming to Princeton for two years, and we’re still here.”
“It was a challenge to think about raising our children in a new context, so far away from family,” Janel Stucky says. “But in that, there are new blessings to be found, new ‘framily’ to be had, and new perspectives to ponder.”
And as with so many landmark events, Nate Stucky’s life was changed by a seemingly casual conversation.
During his second year in the master’s program, he was approached by a fellow student, Jason Santos, who was doing doctoral work. Santos had heard that Stucky was a farmer in his pre-seminary days.
Santos said, “Nate, I’ve got this kind of hare-brained idea. I think we should integrate a fully accredited theological education with small-scale sustainable agriculture.”
Stucky says, “I thought, well, that’s a cool idea. But at that point I had no idea where my life was going. So it was just a great idea.”
But the idea kept coming up in conversations with seminary friends, after dinner or a cookout. Like a fertile seed beneath the soil, a hybrid of theology with farming was about to sprout.
In 2013, while completing his dissertation work, Stucky experienced “that magical, mystical, terrifying moment when you realize you can’t be a student anymore. And you have to figure out how you’re going to feed your kids when it’s all said and done.”
Once again, serendipity (or, as a devout person might interpret it, a force with an active purpose) played a crucial role.
Stucky learned that one of his mentors, Mark DeVries, a seminary alumnus and longtime Presbyterian pastor, was coming to town for a conference. They had previously crossed paths through their mutual work in youth ministries. Now Stucky reached out.
“I called him up and said, ‘Mark, we have to grab coffee and you have to tell me what to do with my life.’”
When they sat down, DeVries’ first question was, “Well, Nate, what’s your dream?” Stucky outlined the Farminary idea. And instead of dismissing the concept as charming but impractical DeVries looked right at him and said, “Let’s do it!”
The older minister’s encouragement was even more meaningful, Stucky adds, because at that stage the Farminary and the ambitious goal of hybridizing small-scale agriculture with formal theological education “was a roughhewn idea at best.”
“Mark encouraged me to take it very seriously. In addition to being a pastor, Mark is a serial entrepreneur, a systems and structures kind of thinker. So he immediately wanted to know how many hours per week I could devote to the idea. I was trying to write a dissertation at the time, so I was, like, maybe three?”
Again, his mentor’s reaction was surprisingly positive. “He said, ‘Great!’ and we came up with a list of things I could work on a few hours a week, so we could keep the idea growing.”
For the better part of a year, with DeVries’ guidance and encouragement, Stucky developed the idea and began presenting it to the seminary administration. Then, in the spring of 2014, Stucky was invited to meet with seminary president M. Craig Barnes. He walked into Barnes’ office and saw a property survey unrolled across the desk.
Serendipity — or providence — was again at work.
“It turns out we already own a farm,” Barnes said.
Stucky had no prior knowledge that, several years earlier, the seminary had purchased a 21-acre former sod farm on Princeton Pike, just a few miles west of its main campus. It was acquired as a possible site for facilities equipment and vehicles and also as a real estate investment that might one day benefit the school’s endowment.
Unfortunately, providing the sod that had been in demand for quick lawn creation during America’s post-World War II suburban development boom had depleted the farm’s fertile top soil. But Stucky was certainly capable of renewing it.
In the spring of 2015 a steering committee was formed to evaluate logistics, funding, and other, well, seminal issues. That semester Stucky taught a pilot course at the farm. It was groundbreaking, literally as well as figuratively: The farm’s 200-by-100-foot, fenced-in garden was established and renewal of its soil commenced, projects completely integrated into the class.
After Stucky completed and defended his thesis, the seminary’s trustees approved the concept, and he was officially hired as director of the Farminary Project. “And here we are, almost exactly four years later,” he says.
Does Stucky believe that all the events and connections making possible the Farminary were just happy coincidences? Or did they represent the workings of an active power?
Stucky laughs gently and ponders the question. “It’s difficult to tell this story and not have some sense that God’s been up to something here. The simple fact of Princeton Theological Seminary owning a 21-acre farm, two-and-a-half miles from its main campus, it’s crazy. It’s totally crazy.”
Certainly, Nate Stucky impresses as a genuinely humble man, quite unlike the stereotyped religious megalomaniac who fiercely believes his each and every action is part of the divine plan. So his further reflection is notable for its quiet sincerity.
“Another response to that question is, I’m not interested in this work unless God’s a part of it,” he says. “And that’s a statement of faith, but it’s true.”
But not even deep faith can immediately vanquish lingering doubts and regrets.
The couple had planned that after Stucky earned his master’s, he would find a job geographically close to their families and origins, “and we would raise our kids in a way like we were raised.” Even after he stayed for the doctoral program, they still intended to go back.
“So there was a really important season for us, the spring of 2014.” (Ever the farmer, Stucky often reckons time not in months, but in seasons.) “We had to come to terms that the dream we came here with was not going to come to fruition. It was becoming less and less realistic that I would be getting a position back in the Midwest.”
As constructive and positive as that dream had been, Nate and Janel realized they had to let it go — like farming itself, not an easy or painless process. “We actually needed help listening to God,” he says.
That help came in the person of Rev. Dr. Marcus Smucker, a retired 80-year-old Mennonite pastor with whom they visited and conversed as a couple. “It was one of the most important things we did. Essentially what Marcus helped us do was articulate that desire to go back, to live closer to family. And then he helped us grieve the loss of that dream.”
For Stucky, it was a variety of the spiritual lesson so often learned on a farm. “Again, life comes to us through death,” he explains. “The vitality of the Farminary dream actually depended on laying to rest the grief of that prior dream.”
Happily, no signs of grief clouded the journalist’s subsequent visit to the farm (where he pitched in to help the students pick vegetables). The plainness and pleasant functionality of the site made strong first impressions. The large garages and storage structures that had been built for the former sod operation still stand, some continuing to serve as vehicle and equipment garages. But within the best of those buildings are set tables upon which the weekly harvest shares are sorted and boxed.
Currently 12 member families pick up pre-boxed shares on Thursdays. Most have a seminary connection: professors, staff, or students. Stucky declines to give the weekly dollar amount, especially because the students are charged less.
But, he emphasizes, “It is not our goal to undercut other local farmers. Our economic structure is different.”
Of the 200 by 100 feet plot that was cleared and fenced in for the garden, only half is cultivated each growing season; the other half lies fallow. And the cultivated sector is further divided: half for warm-weather vegetables, half for cold-weather vegetables.
Is the Farminary an organic farm? “We’re not certified, but functionally we are,” Stucky says.
The farm has several Barred Rock hens with one Blue Silky bantam rooster. The chickens supply natural fertilizer and, as they mature, may provide eggs as well. “The chickens look to us for food and protection, and in return they bring life to the land,” Stucky says. “That manure is gold.”
But with the laugh comes a lesson. “That’s part of the vision here,” he continues. “There are things to learn about being part of the circuit of life, growth, and death. It’s what the chickens can teach you that you don’t learn anywhere else.”
The weekly harvest takes place amid carefully ordered, visually cheerful beds of vegetables: snap peas, snow peas, spinach and mustard greens, bok choi, kale, arugula, lettuce, carrots, dill, cilantro, and nasturtium. Similarly, the conversations between the student workers and their teacher are well-ordered and cheerful.
“This is our first time of growing this particular variety of peas,” Stucky tells the visitor, his happy tone communicating that the experiment is proving a success.
Peas must be picked within parameters of growth: not so young as to have little nutrition or fibers, but not so old that they have become tough and stringy. But the constant selection process should only be a labor of the body, not belabor the mind.
“You’ll soon learn it’s not about perfection,” says student worker Annalise Hume. “It’s been a good lesson.”
As in life, much of value often lies beneath what is immediately obvious. You just have to look a little.
“That’s the true joy,” says Jeff Chu, another student worker in the pea patch. “When you think you’ve finished a plant, and there’s six or seven more there. They seem to grow when you’re not looking.”
Suddenly, a sharp but strangely melodious call arches from the chicken enclosure. Nate immediately looks up from a discussion about the finer points of pea cultivation. An almost beatific smile blossoms across his face.
“Did you hear that?” he exclaims. “The first crowing!” He genuinely rejoices at the sound, because it’s a clear indication that the new hens have reached their adolescence and will soon be full, egg-producing adults.
Another student who has found abundant spiritual harvests among the seemingly mundane nurturing and gathering of vegetables is Pearl Sade Quick. During her childhood near Raleigh, North Carolina, her family always grew enough vegetables to help feed themselves. But they also planted extra, used in bartering with neighbors for other foods or household needs.
From 2011 to 2016 Quick was in New York, turning vacant lots in the South Bronx into community gardens. Already devoutly religious, she heard about the Farminary Project and, she recalls, immediately thought, “That sounds like my kind of jam!”
But she soon discovered that to farm at the Farminary she had to study at the seminary. “I was so mad that I had to take other classes,” she laughs, but quickly adds, “It’s been a good decision so far.”
Especially rewarding, Quick says, are the occasional visits of friends and fellow students to the Farminary. “All the different stages of life happen here,” she says. “When I get them out here, they see it immediately.”
During the 2019-’20 academic year, Stucky will teach two seminary courses: “Text and Terrain: Connecting Scripture, Land, and Interpretation” in the fall, and “Practicum in Theology, Ecology and Faith Formation,” in the spring. Both will feature shared meals and, of course, work at the Farminary.
“I think the power of what happens there is much more than the shared community that gathers together to care for this land,” he observes. “We define that community as necessarily including the land itself.”
And, Stucky says, “you never know what insight is going to emerge while weeding garden beds, planting carrots, or building the compost pile.”
The Farminary, 4200 Princeton Pike, Princeton. During the summer Open Farm hours take place every Tuesday from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. www.ptsem.edu/discover/farminary/overview