Any agricultural college worth its salt offers courses discussing plant identification, irrigation and seedbed preparation. But to find those same topics taught at a private Christian college – to city-raised students eager to use them in missions work – is unusual. And it’s part of a dream “29 years in the making,” says Stephanie Smith.
Smith is an educator and the wife of Ray Smith, University of Kentucky (UK) Extension forage specialist. The two are also alumni of Asbury University, located in Wilmore, KY, and part of a team of people who created its “Mission Farm Project,” a one-credit ag course just finishing its second year.
Asbury has a goal to equip students so that “a personal transformation of faith and hope will be transmitted through their lives throughout the whole world,” says Stephanie. “One of the ways we saw that happening was through agriculture, and the students were really looking for ways to grow in that knowledge.”
“The vast majority of them want to do mission work and use agriculture as a tool instead of using medical missions or instead of preaching to save souls,” adds Marty Bilderback, the course’s main instructor as well as an associate professor in Asbury’s equine program. “They want to approach people through agriculture, through food, and help people raise themselves up.”
One such Asbury student, missions major Anna Houben, had mentioned to Ray one day that she would like to learn more about production agriculture – but that Asbury didn’t offer any classes on the subject.
Little did she know she was awakening a dream of the Smiths that they’d had early in their married life – of meshing their passions for agriculture and missions work.
That same evening, Ray wrote up a course proposal that he shared with Bilderback, himself a former dairy and beef producer. “I was ecstatic. I found someone like-minded,” Bilderback says. Other departments, like biology and missions, were eager to help teach aspects of the course.
“We tap into Asbury. We tap into UK. We tap into local expertise” to provide instructors and field-trip activities for the course, Stephanie says.
Fortunately, Asbury owns more than 300 acres along the Kentucky River Palisades, so a few were assigned to the Mission Farm Project.
The class offers basics in planting crops, composting and preserving food. It also advocates recycling materials, in part to encourage students to make do with what’s available, whether they’re in Africa or in an inner-city development.
For example, they’ve made plant cold frames using old windows as well as stripped and cut down trees, planed the lumber from them and built a shed at the mission farm site.
Draft horses have been used to break the sod for a garden hand-planted by students to raise vegetables. The produce is donated to local ministries or sold to the university’s cafeteria and at farmers markets, giving students opportunities to gain marketing experience.
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Most of the course is geared toward sustainable farming practices that can be used in missions overseas. But missions major Houben, who graduates this month, says the ag knowledge she’s gained shouldn’t be limited to use in third-world countries. “I see that it can be used in the U.S. as well,” she says.
The Smiths also see the potential for their students to help inner-city residents, or the neighbors down the street, plant urban gardens.
Today the couple consider themselves cheerleaders of the project and are open to where their ag missions work will lead them in the future.
“I very much enjoy the work I do at the University of Kentucky – the professional work in forages. And this has been great – partly volunteer and partly what fits into my Extension work,” Ray says. Other schools are moving toward sustainable ag programs, too, he points out. “I’d be glad to help them.”
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