As we gathered at the UBC Farm to hear from two of leaders of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, I was struck with nostalgia. The farm is on the University of British Columbia’s campus, very close to where I grew up. Actually, the old barn on the original farm is where my brothers and friends and I would go to play and hide in the lofts. The barn is no longer there – it’s now the proposed site of a large condominium project – but the fields were saved and now are part of a green, organic and sustainable farming project at the university.
I was there last June with our Coast to Coast communities in Canada and our partnership P2G mayors and lay leaders from Israel. The UBC farm is working with people in our partnership region in Israel to help educate farmers about going green. What was interesting to hear was that the farm not only rotates crops and encourages certain insects, but that it actually prescribes a fallow year for each section and crop. They set out to make the sixth or seventh year a break from all growing. Isn’t that in our Torah?
Yes, in fact it is this week’s parasha – Behar – Leviticus chapter 25. To summarize: On Mt. Sinai, God instructed Moses to tell the Israelite people, “When you enter the land I assigned you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. You may grow and gather your crops and tend the vineyards for six years but not in the seventh year. You cannot sow the fields nor prune the vineyards, it shall be a complete rest for the land. But you may eat anything that the land produces during that rest year.”
After seven of these seven-year periods, there was to be a jubilee year - the fiftieth year – where everyone returned to their families and their original holdings. That fiftieth year was to be holy, and the Israelites were not to reap nor sow the land. Purchase of land was to be done fairly, in relation to the jubilee year.
God then said to Moses “You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill and shall live upon it in security.”
God promises that after the sixth year of growing, all will be provided for; in fact in that year, there will be enough to last three years.
This parasha is so relevant today with the growth of organic “green” farming methods that do not treat land as an infinite resource. As they were researching and building the Farm at UBC, there grew a worldwide movement for sustainable farming. If we care for the land, it will provide abundantly.
Vancouver, along with five other cities in Canada (Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Halifax), is a partner in the Etzbah Hagalil, the Upper Galilee Panhandle. It is a beautiful agricultural region, idyllic in many ways. But it is not just its proximity to the Lebanese and Syrian borders that make it such a vulnerable region. Because it is in the periphery, the funding for education and social needs is not as strong. There are also health issues here, meaning children catch more illnesses. This is why we are working with regional mayors and lay leaders to educate farmers there about green farming. Our friends on kibbutzim can still see the planes swooping over the fields spraying pesticides to protect the crops.
The example of the farm at UBC is only a baby step in working with a group of farmers to share their research and learning.
Although Israel observes the Sabbath year by temporarily selling the land, they do not let it lie fallow. Nor do they observe a jubilee year every fifty. I know for sure it is not standard practice in North America, either. But what if we took that break, took a year to let the land rest and reflect on how grateful we are to be able to grow our food and provide for people? To not only think about how we are going about our lives, but to slow down and think about taking care of the land for the long term. Would we have enough food, would we manage?
That farm at UBC I grew up playing at was preserved after much effort. The condominium project would have taken over and built on those fields if wiser heads hadn’t prevailed. Today, there are not only the pressures of feeding a growing world population, but housing and finding jobs for them all. The pressures on our lands are enormous.
In this chapter, God reminds Moses that “the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” and again at the end that the Israelites are servants “whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.”
I don’t have answers, just questions. But I do know that sustainability and respect for the land and where and how our food is provided is becoming more immediate.
Sixth Year NWP Board Member