As You Sow, So Shall You Reap: Mormons and the Land

A vast, little-known system of welfare farms is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, feeding their faith and community.


North Ogden Utah Peach OrchardThis is the second installment of our ongoing Faith in Food series. Read the first installment here.

On a hot summer day two years ago, Michael Larsen, a Rexburg, Idaho father of five, answered a call for volunteers from a bean farm near the Utah border, bringing with him his two young daughters. In a scene recalling an Amish barn-raising, he describes many hands making light work of hoeing the sun-baked, pancake-flat field, each group working two or three approximately half-mile-long rows.

“It was a cool sight,” he recalls. “More than a hundred people spread across the entire field, working their way down the rows and back.” His kids complained about the heat and the length of the rows, but Larsen, a devout Mormon, believes the experience helped pass on values he gained from harvesting potatoes while growing up in rural Idaho.

“I feel like they’ve come to better understand the importance of self-reliance from participating in it,” he says. “I wish there were more opportunities like that.”

The farm Larsen and his daughters volunteered on that day was no ordinary bean-growing operation: It’s part of a vast, yet little-known system of welfare farms run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). This network of more than 50 farms, scattered across the West and ranging from 100 to 10,000 acres, grows everything from wheat to apples to raisins.

The crops supply a distribution system of 143 “bishops’ storehouses,” church food banks where a signed form from a local Mormon leader is the only legal tender. Filling hundreds of thousands of food orders a year, the operation may be the nation’s largest private welfare system.

Wade Sperry is the LDS Church official charged with overseeing this extensive network. “We have a scriptural mandate to care for the poor and needy,” he says. “Throughout the Bible and other scriptures we have in our church, Christ is quoted as saying that we need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the stranger.”

Mormons’ motivations for farming aren’t quite so simple. After all, Jesus doesn’t say you have to grow the food you feed the hungry with. The LDS Church’s farm-to-food-bank welfare system also has its roots in this modern, fast-growing religious minority’s longstanding ethic of self-reliance.Salt Lake City Bishops storehouse_CU081204_bkf01 For Mormons, growing food has always been a social safety net.

Within a couple days of settling in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley in 1847—planting a proverbial flag in the arid land that would become the Mecca of their faith—Mormon pioneers had built a diversion dam on City Creek to irrigate newly plotted fields. Within a few years, they had spread throughout the valley and beyond, constructing the most advanced canal network in the West.

Cultivating this territory was a colonization project, to be sure; the followers of the LDS Church were trying to create a religious refuge in what were then the wilds of Mexico. But farming was also a necessity: In early pioneer-era Utah, where there were few trading partners, food security demanded growing your own.

The current farm system started during the Depression, when church leaders, who had long connected economic and political autonomy, set themselves up in opposition to the New Deal.

“They saw welfare as a neighbor-to-neighbor obligation, not a function of government—particularly not the federal government,” explains Brian Cannon, a Brigham Young University history professor. “So, they looked for ways for Mormons to care for themselves.”

At the time, some Mormon farmers couldn’t afford to pay workers for harvesting, so their crops would rot in the field, says Kate Holbrook, a historian with the LDS Church History Department. Harold B. Lee, a regional religious leader at the time, came up with an idea: Put unemployed men to work harvesting the crops, split the yield with the farmer, and use the extra to feed the many hungry.

By 1936, church official J. Reuben Clark had expanded Lee’s scheme into a formalized, church-wide welfare system that acted as an ecclesiastical alternative to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “dole.”

Today, the modern Mormon welfare-farm system reflects that self-reliant ethic. In 2013, manned in part by volunteers, church-owned welfare farms produced approximately 83 million pounds of wheat and dry beans, 20 million pounds of row crops (e.g., sugar beets), and 6 million pounds of fruit. This food is processed at church facilities, mostly by volunteers, and distributed via the bishops’ storehouses. To fund the system, observant Mormons fast on the first Sunday of each month and donate the amount they would have spent on food.

“People gain a lot of blessings—satisfaction, whatever you want to call it—from working for free to feed somebody in need,” Sperry says.

Mormons—along with the rest of the American population—have largely relocated from rural to urban areas in recent decades. And like much of agriculture, the welfare farms have become less local and more industrialized. “There’s less involvement by lay members in harvesting operations,” Cannon says. “The church has moved to a model with more corporate farms.”Magna Welfare farm_CWD_2abd5e92-fddd-4387-8831-4aa91d97f3e4

With these shifts, working the land has been imbued with spiritual significance (and more than a little nostalgia). Spencer W. Kimball, president of the church in the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged Mormons to grow their own food—even just potted tomato plants on an apartment balcony.

The church leader, who’d grown up on a farm, held a conviction that “something had been lost when Mormons left the countryside,” says Cannon. “More than economics, it had to do with a work ethic and a spiritual value.”

Kimball often cited the so-called “law of the harvest”–“As you sow, so shall you reap.” This New Testament passage has since become a Mormon mantra, linking farming with LDS’ beliefs about personal responsibility and spiritual rewards.

“When you farm, you learn that when you plant something and tend to it, you get a good product,” Holbrook observes. “Doing things like going to church, reading your scriptures, and serving your neighbor is the spiritual equivalent to planting your seeds in rich soil: you’re going to become a better, more loving, closer-to-God kind of person.”

It’s another lesson Larsen hopes his daughters learn from their brief stints as bean farmers.

“I don’t expect the concept to sink in at their ages, but I think the experience will provide a springboard for discussion throughout their lives,” he says. “Farming teaches a spiritual principle through physical means. If we make bad choices, that’s going to have negative consequences. If we plant beans, we’re not going to get corn.”

 

Photos, from top: North Ogden Utah Peach Orchard, The Salt Lake City Bishops storehouse, The Magna Welfare Farm (see more pics of this farm). All are used here courtesy of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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  1. kathy
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Excellent article. Well written and well researched. Also, nice to see the Mormons getting a fair break for a change. You have to give them credit, they take care of their own and others. I have seen their ethic at work in my community and I applaud them for it.
  2. Monte Noffsinger
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Mormonism is a cult and no matter how many good works they do they still deny 'THE' Jesus Christ of 'THE' scriptures.

    The mormon jesus is not the same Jesus of scriptures so all this time they have been worshiping a man made idol.

    I beg of all you Mormons, get out of that cult before you see the rapture come and go with your own eyes as you are left behind to face the wrath of God (John 3:36)
  3. Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Great article!

    If only our federal government would adopt this concept, our nation would be some much stronger.
  4. Cindy
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    A well-done (no pun intended) article! Balanced and factual. While I, too, have worked on these farms in my youth, I did not know the origins nor the yield.
  5. Greg Wilder
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    What a beautiful system to help the poor and strengthen all people involved.
  6. Don
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    This is the way it should be, instead of looking to the federal government for handouts and government welfare that promotes dependency upon the federal government from cradle to the grave.
  7. Don Smith
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Great article, I would have like to seen that the dairy farms were also included
  8. Mary M Irving
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Can none members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints get a form from the local bishop and receive food from the food storehouse?
  9. lindsey
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Correction: These are NOT volunteers that are working these farms. The workers are assigned this work by their bishop after breaking church law/edits. The LDS membership refers to these assignments as "blessings," but it is nothing more than slave labor. (Been there, done that)
  10. Mary Bush
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Thank you for this article. It was wonderful to read
    a well written article with something positive about our church.
  11. DanL
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Hay, Thank you for this posititve message about LDS church instead of alway questionable issures which often than not skews toward negative views.
  12. Carol Speakert
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    I am SO thankful to be a member of this most wonderful organization. Some think there is some force or coercion in the LDS church. It is all about personal choice and I am so thankful that I chose to be a Mormon. I love it all.
  13. Ashley
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    This is how welfare should be done. Not a plastic card where you can buy whatever you want, junk food included. BUT! The food be there for you and you get what you need. Food "benefits" from the tax payers has ruined this nation.
  14. Laurie Andersen
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Thank you for a positive and informative article. Nice to see good news.
  15. Jean G.
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Wow! Look at that, no Mormon put downs!!! It is a good day. :-)
  16. Darrel
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    I have worked on 2 of these farms when I was younger and felt a rewarding sense of pride that I was helping those in need. It was hard work but it was a great way way that my father taught us to serve even when we lived in a modern city in Southern California. When people are guided by a living Prophet great things can happen.
  17. Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    I'm usually negative concerning the LDS, but sounds like an excellent program that should be commended and copied.
  18. Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    I am not a Mormon, but I greatly admire the church for what it does for worldwide hunger, disease and need. Its farming policies in this country are admirable. It is no wonder that they are one of the fastest-growing religious bodies in the world. More power to them !
  19. Mary Riedinger
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    I love helping people & most of all thinking of others first before thinking of myself.
    There is so much hate in this world today. A smile or a good morning to someone could lighten up their day.
  20. jennifer
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    This is an awesome article. I have volunteered at the distribution centers to fill orders and give out food to needy people. It was nice to read about where the food was grown and originated. i never thought about the beginning of the process. I am also amazed that people in 2015 do not realize that we (LDS) are Christians and believe in the Bible in its entirety and the same Jesus Christ as the rest of the world. These farms are worked by volunteers or paid workers. No one is sent here as punishment. If they were, their own parents sent them. I'm so tired of the negativity towards our church. Thank you for a positive article.
  21. meme
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Great article, great comments. Except Monte and Lindsey, and of course they don't know what they are talking about. It always amazes me when people spew these lies as if they were truth and think nothing of it.
  22. Bill
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    We used to can tuna in the sixties and seventies in San Diego. We also had a nice egg ranch. I miss those days. Nothing lifts your spirits more than serving others.
  23. TimeHasCome
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Don't forget the cattle ranches the LDS have . I will never forget those thousands that came into Katrina devastated areas and help the people so struck down .
  24. Lewis Nimmons
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Thank you for a fair and balanced article. For those with negative comments, contact a member or a missionary, and discover the truth about Mormons.
  25. Peanut
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Is the food for anyone in need, or only mormon members? Just wondering...
  26. GB
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    I think this is a great idea and a great service but to me it makes little difference if the welfare comes from the government or from a church or from people. It matters if people in need get help.
  27. virginia hanna
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    In Idaho and other states , many Non Mormon farmers are being faced with loosing their farms because they can't compete with the Mormon Church OWNED Agro Farms ,and Beehive Welfare farms Other farmers who do not belong to Organized religion have no FREE labor. and Donated equipment. This is all good for the Mormons, but I don't think it is someting that really can be admired by orr Savior when you consider the damage done to our fellow man.
  28. Randy Spencer
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    I have worked on these farms for 50 years. I have seen both members and those who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints receive assistance of food when the need arose. We are told in the New Testament that Jesus "went about doing good". You may all have your own definition of which Jesus you think everyone should worship. I believe if we all went about doing good, the real Jesus would be very pleased.
  29. Flo
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    People do not have to be members of the LDS church to have access to the bishop's storehouse, or any other welfare program of the church. All assistance available to a member of the church is likewise available to a person who is not a member, but they have to go through the same channel that the member does. Local bishops make the decision about how best to render assistance and, in fact, they have a mandate to serve ALL of the people within their geographical area of responsibility, regardless of whether those people who need help are members of the church or not.
  30. DoggieDr
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    What a nice, factual, positive, well-researched article-- thank you, Jonathan :) I did want to add that the Church farms grow the crops that are local to the area. One farm nearby grows cotton, one in a neighboring county grows chilies, and another a couple of hours away grows corn. Like Don and TimeHasCome said, there are also cattle and dairy operations (as far as I know there still are). My eldest children and I volunteered (yes, Lindsey, we were not being punished) to pick chilies last fall, and even though it was a hot, busy day, we really were blessed with the satisfaction of a hard-day's work and knowing that our efforts were going to a wonderful cause. As for Peanut & Mary M Irving, I don't know, but you can ask a local Bishop!
  31. Ben
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    The food is for anyone in need. All you have to do is meet with the local leaders of the LDS Church and express your hardship. They will help. They even have budgets for helping pay bills when times are extreme. They even keep lists of people that need employees, to help people find work. BUT, I will state that they consider all cases carefully. Meaning, the last thing they want is someone to be dependent on the church's help or abuse it. When they help someone they also provide employment help and other things to help them become more self efficient.
  32. Suzanne
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    To Monte: The LDS church is not a cult. We believe Jesus Christ, son of God is the head of our church. He is the same Christ found in the New Testament. Get the facts straight, please. Read the New Testament and then go read the Book of Mormon. You'll see they are the same.

    To Lindsey: Yes they are volunteers. I have volunteered on many, many occasions in many capacities from the Bishop's storehouse, to Helping Hands day. Members are not sent there as a punishment. A request goes out and people who want to help can.

    To those who asked about non members getting food. Only in rare circumstances will a bishop allow it. This system is provided for members so they do not have to rely on the government for help.
  33. Jon L
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Great article, I have worked in the LDS church orchards many of times and always enjoy doing so. There is a better way to both support and lift up those that have less and are in need than the the governments present role.
  34. Steve
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Many of the people leaving comments above are misinformed... even some of the ones who have said, "Been there, done that".

    The Bishop's Storehouse is available to anyone in need. Our Relief Society fills food orders for many non-members each month.

    There are never work requirements for anything provided, but most do many things to help. In our area, each congregation has the opportunity to send members, and anyone who volunteers, to work the farms and the storehouse.

    It's nice to see how food is produced.
  35. Robert
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Peanut,
    The whole program was designed to help members get back on their feet during some kind of personal set back. I am aware of many times where non LDS people in my neighborhood have received food and other assistance. It's not like there is some king of published advertisement for people down on their luck to come and get assistance. But when people interact and are aware of their neighbors in need it can be arranged. In my ward the Bishop would ask members to do some kind of service work if possible so that they felt their own self worth grow in the exchange. When non LDS people came to him he would suggest that they attend the general Sunday service as way of learning a little more about us in the exchange.
  36. Neil Gouett
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity"- Martin Luther King. That's for you Monte and Lindsey-thank you to the writers for a factual non-biased article portraying the kind of American service and spirit that our country needs to return to.
  37. Richard
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a welfare program endorsed by Heavenly Father. I have been on the approval end of seeing that deserving members are helped during their times of need. The Bishops Storehouse distribution centers are a well-organized and successful system for reaching out to the less-fortunate and allows volunteers to be in the service of their fellowman as Christ so wonderfully exemplified. In fact our regional cannery will be making peanut butter shortly, and it will require about twenty volunteers per shift to man and operate it around the clock.
  38. Michael
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    I spent many days thinning and/or harvesting peaches in Southern California. My brother and I also spent some Saturdays mowing the grass at some of these welfare farms. I went for the promise of a chocolate shake but I benefitted far beyond that.
  39. Louise
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    For those who keep asking--No, non-Mormons do NOT receive food items from the LDS Bishop's Storehouse. You have to be a member and receive a requisition from the Bishop of your Ward.
  40. Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    I have fond memories of getting up early in the morning and travelling with my father and brothers from the L.A. suburbs to what we called "The Pear Farm" somewhere out in the Palmdale desert. We hoed weeds, picked fruit and ate our lunch sitting under the trees. At other Welfare Projects in other places I've lived I've peeled tomatoes, picked blueberries, moved sprinkler pipe in mosquito-filled wheat fields, picked apples, and mixed powdered gelatin (like Jello). I have loaded trucks and stocked shelves in many Bishop's Storehouses, along with hundreds of my Mormon friends and neighbors. Without exception, when we were done I was a happy, tired volunteer and I'm proud that we care for our own. Everyone should be so lucky.
  41. Irene Kingsford
    Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
    Great article, Jonathan!!! For those people making negative comments, you are misinformed!!! Our leaders asked for volunteers & it's up to us, members, to respond for their request. It is not a punishment as some of you commented. "When you are in the service of your fellow beings, you are only in the service of your God!" When you criticize people that are trying to do good, you are criticizing God, who inspired our leaders to do work such as our welfare program. As members of The Church of Jesus of Latter-Day Saints, we are not forced to do anything we don't want to do. We have our FREE AGENCY to choose!! Our Church Leaders important job to the members is to encourage us to do good!!! We reap what we sow!!!
  42. Dan
    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
    Louise, you are misinformed. I have personally witnessed many non-LDS people receive help from this system: not just food but help with medical and utility bills, even rent. Yes you need the requisition form signed by the Bishop, but they will sign it for any one truly in need, member of the church or not. Please don't speak from a position of ignorance and pretend you know what you are talking about.

    Anyone who reads this and is in need of help, I challenge you to go to your local LDS Bishop (look them up online, call and make an appointment) and ask for help. They will help, but they will also expect you to allow them to really understand your circumstances first. And they will invite you to church but the help is not contingent upon it.
  43. Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
    Non- Mormons can and do receive church assistance. My best friend, who helped me with cub scouts at church received food orders from the the Bishop's Storehouse. My bishop knew she was in the middle of a crisis and offered to help. She received food orders for about a year, and money for medical purposes but faithfully weaned herself off of the help. No surprise that she joined our church and now volunteers regularly at the Storehouse. She (we) love the feelings of love and service there in that holy place. p.s.- She is now the Cub Master!
  44. John
    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
    Louise,
    You are incorrect; an LDS Bishop can give a "food order" to any person of any race, religion or sexual orientation.
    One of the duties of a Bishop is to help the poor.
    I have seen this done personally.
  45. Shane Leiser
    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
    Virginia Hanna, your comment could not be further from the truth. LDS owned farms do not compete with local farming operations. The yield from these farms do not go into the marketplace. They are used solely towards feeding the needy. To those who have stated that only LDS members can benefit from LDS storehouses, that is not correct. Non-members can utilize them when and if the local Bishop determines a need........
  46. Bill
    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
    GB-how can you even begin to compare a government welfare system, full of fraud, abuse, and dependency, with an all volunteer church run system?
  47. Sam
    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
    You do NOT have to be a member to receive assistance from the LDS church. The only requirement is that you meet with the LDS Bishop in your geographical location.

    Volunteering on a church owned farm/ranch is exactly that volunteering. Not one single person is forced to work on the form as a type of punishment. Some people actually enjoy serving and helping others.
  48. George Leavitt
    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
    You should see the project in Madera, California. 80 acres of Thompson seedless grapes that are picked and laid on paper trays to make approximately 150-200 tons of raisins. Some of these raisins are used in the welfare system of the church, but the majority of the crop is used for Humanitarian purposes across the USA and all over the world. This does not compete with local growers as the raisins are given to people and organizations that cannot afford to buy raisins.
    I invite you to come to the welfare farm on labor day weekend and see the 2500-3000 volunteer members who arrive early in the morning and lay down 80 acres by noon. It is a sight never to be forgotten.
    Please watch this video
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=THWbxOb0lR0
  49. Donna M. Morgan
    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
    When we lived in Hanford with our four children, we too worked in the Madera vineyard. Blessings followed. With temperatures of well over 100 degrees in the summer the work was hot, dusty and back breaking. We gained a new appreciation for the labor of farm workers throughout the world who put food on our tables. Our sons learned not only the satisfaction that comes from helping others but they had fun seeing who could hit the bishop with the most dirt clods. He could return as good as he got. During the Christmas holiday when we pruned the vines the sky was usually clear and we could see the snow capped Sierras. There were no class distinctions. There was unity of purpose. We felt that we were truly pruning the Lord's vineyard.
  50. Andrew Hendrickson
    Sunday, January 25th, 2015
    Just to answer a couple of questions made in the comment section.
    Mary M Irving asks on January 20, 2015 at 10:34 am
    "Can none members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints get a form from the local bishop and receive food from the food storehouse?"

    The answer is "yes". I know for a fact that I have personally delivered food to families who were not members of the church. Generally speaking, mostly members are given permission by a local Bishop to obtain food from the storehouse, but Bishop's do extend this to "non-members" as well.
  51. Natalie
    Thursday, January 29th, 2015
    This is an excellent, efficient private food security safety net that dovetails nicely with public nutrition programs like SNAP and WIC, as well as with U.S. emergency food security initiatives overseas. Both public and private efforts are needed in our society and in the world. There are many collaborations between LDS Charities and welfare farm programs and local food banks and larger emergency relief organizations and efforts such as Catholic Relief Services and the Red Cross. All are integral parts of a food security network and the existence of each type of entity and the partnerships between them bring significant results.