Christian family embraces organic farming in U.S.

COMMERCE, Texas (Reuters) - The Hale family has embraced organic farming because it is healthy, good for the environment and less cruel to animals. But do not mistake them for nature-worshiping New Agers or back-to-basics hippies.

Esther Hale, 16, (L) wipes her brow as she and her brother, Daniel, 14, (R) work to clean chickens on the processing line at their family's farm in Campbell, Texas September 5, 2007. The Hale family, who have eight children and run an organic farm, base their beliefs about farming on biblical scripture. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

They are part of a small movement of conservative Christians who believe the Bible demands an organic or natural approach to agriculture.

The Hales support the Republican Party and back conservative former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to be the next U.S. president, and they take their faith seriously.

The eight children, aged nine to 24, were schooled at home, in part to shield them from corrosive secular influences. The four girls and mother Connie dress modestly in long skirts.

And yet, like the Amish and Mennonites before them, they have chosen a lifestyle that other conservative Christians in the United States might dismiss as counter-culture.

“Humanistic thinking is we want to have control over everything. We want to just come in and poison these bugs,” patriarch Mike Hale said of the more usual approach to food and farming.

“But because we’re organic we can’t poison bugs and we’re dependent on the Lord,” he said, as chickens clucked nearby and a rooster crowed. “There’s an aspect that we trust the Lord to take care of things.”

Organic agriculture emphasizes crop rotation, composting and the use of animal manures, avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides that organic farmers say contaminate food, wildlife and the environment.

The Hales live only an hour or so east of Dallas, but the fast pace and active night life of the city seem a world away.

Prayers are given before each meal and the virtue of hard work is an ingrained part of this home, where each child has a set of tasks around the farm. Mike is the undisputed head of the household in a role they see as appointed by God.

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But their emphasis on environmental stewardship, kindness to livestock raised for market, and their suspicion of big agriculture and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not positions usually associated with conservative Republicans.

“God specifically says ‘do not mix’ and he gives examples of not mixing a certain cloth or not mixing or planting different seeds in a field,” said Connie as she explained why the family avoided GMO foods.

It’s also a question of stewardship.

“We’re responsible for this little piece of real estate that the Lord has given us to take care of,” Mike Hale said. “It’s really the Lord’s farm and he’s let us take care of it for a few years.”

The family is proud of the living it is able to make off just 40 acres, a plot size that few farmers would rate as commercially viable.

They raise beef and lamb but poultry is their mainstay, with close to 400 chickens slaughtered and prepared each week.

The chickens are “pastured,” which means their diet is a natural one of insects and grass out in the field.

“Eating the grasses and things not only makes them healthier it makes them taste better,” Connie said as young chicks poked and scratched in the long grass.

High-end restaurants are among their clients as organic or natural products are coveted and come with a premium.

For Mike it is all part of God’s design, which also explains why he feels that even animals raised for food should not be treated cruelly or cooped up in tiny pens like factory farmed animals.

This puts him among a growing number of faith-based groups, both conservative and liberal, who are promoting organic foods and good nutrition as part of a Christian lifestyle.

“I’m just looking at that chicken, the beauty of that back, that says it right there,” he said as he pointed to one dark-colored chicken with wet feathers that shimmered in the light.

“That’s a created being and deserves some respect,” he said.