Farming Flowers to the Glory of God – Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

As soon as Jonathan Herb heard Afghan refugees were going to be resettled in Dallas, he texted his colleagues. Hey, did you hear Dallas is getting a bunch of refugees from Afghanistan? How can we meet them? How can we hire them?

Jonathan is a farmer with an unlikely background. Four years ago, he was a firefighter, listening to his buddies in the fire station talk about the ranching they were doing on the side. He wasn’t a farm kid. He didn’t own land, or a barn, or cattle feed. He grew up in the suburbs, went to college, did a stint in corporate America.

But he and his wife, Kendall, were increasingly interested in what they were eating. “The more we learned, the more we realized we were going to have to grow it ourselves if we really wanted to know,” said Jonathan, laughing at himself a little. So they took his buddies’ advice—“instead of buying really expensive meat, we spent even more money and raised it ourselves.”

Mars Hill Farm / Photo by Julia Schwarz

“I don’t think our HSA is going to allow cattle,” Kendall told him. So Jonathan leased some land for their three new cows.

“Who would’ve known that raising cows would stir my affections for the Lord in the way other things hadn’t?” said Jonathan, who began reading farming articles and researching growing seasons. “I’m reading passages of Scripture and wrestling with them in a real, tangible level—there’s so much agrarian context in the Bible. It started to click a little differently.”

Jonathan and Kendall wanted to head overseas, bringing sustainable farming practices and the gospel to the mission field. But “the doors all slammed shut in a weird way,” Jonathan said. Other doors opened, and three years ago, Jonathan and Kendall teamed up with two other couples to begin farming flowers on a spot of land just outside Dallas.

They chose flowers over, say, cattle or corn for a couple of reasons. First, flowers are more economical. “Corn generates about $300 an acre, while flowers can generate $70,000 an acre,” Jonathan said.

Second, flowers are “people-centric,” he said. “They are attractional. If we wanted the farm to be a conversation-starter, we needed flowers.” As a nod to those conversations, they named the place Mars Hill Farm.

Flowers are also people-centric because they can’t be harvested with a combine. They have to be cut by hand. And that means you can hire anyone—teenagers, United Nations–status refugees, those recently released from prison—to work for you.

TGC asked Jonathan what he’s learned from his employees, how the farm ministry fared during 2020, and if we should all move to the country to grow corn and chickens.

Your farm is just three years old. You spent two of those years working with two Muslim refugees—Mahmmoud and Saeed—who had escaped from Syria. What did you learn from them?

It’s so insightful to be able to work alongside people—to think about what it is to love them in ways Christ would love them. When you work with someone, day in and day out, it changes the dynamics totally.

Saeed and Mahmmoud / Photo by Hunter Lacey

I learned a lot about prioritizing spiritual disciplines. Muslim people pause their day five times to pray. They also talked about why the women wear the hijab. Am I willing to be so obviously different from the culture around me?

I also had to backtrack from my traditional Western mentality of Let me tell you why you’re wrong, and why my faith is correct. I had to think about what Paul did at Mars Hill: You’re trying to worship different gods. Let’s talk about that.

They questioned me on my faith; I questioned them on theirs. The big eye-opener for me was figuring out where someone believes something true, and figuring out how to work with that.

They didn’t become Christians while they were here, but we did have some good conversations. For example, Saeed started to make connections between the idea of Moses freeing people out of slavery and Jesus freeing people out of slavery. Even as they move on—Saeed took a job as a carpenter, and Mahmmoud is now a long-haul trucker—I hope their time here was impactful.

How has the farm fared during the past year and a half? I know you temporarily pivoted away from supplying flowers for events to having people come and pick their own.

Even more than COVID, President Trump’s limits on immigration affected the refugee programs our country has in place. After Mahmmoud and Saeed moved on to higher-paying jobs, which we were thrilled about, we didn’t have anyone to take their place.

Jonathan, Saeed, Amos, and Mahmmoud / Photo by Hunter Lacey

We hired a team of Rwandan refugees looking for extra work to plant our gladiolas. Our delivery driver is from Congo. We have a South Sudanese teenager helping out. And with the influx of Afghan refugees, we’re hopeful we can find someone who needs a job.

The financial part is always a tension, even when we were working with Mahmmoud and Saeed. If we sit across the bed to weed, it may take us 30 minutes. If we talk, it’s up to 45 minutes or an hour. Now, that 30-minute job ended up costing twice as much. It doesn’t make sense, so we’re asking the Lord to help us seek his wisdom instead of our own.

It’s been a tough season, where it sometimes feels like you aren’t fulfilling your mission of serving refugees or making enough to be financially viable. How do you know if you should keep going or call it quits?

When we run into difficulties, my wife reminds me that the Lord is good. Because I often get frustrated; I feel like my world is falling apart at some level.

The narrative we experience over and over is: I get frustrated and ready to give up hope, and then the next thing breathes new life back into it. The Lord opened the doors to farming, to my business partners Blake and Julia and Trevor and Julie, to this land, to our employees. We’re growing, even if we aren’t yet financially stable. We always wanted the farm to be a conversation-starter, and now we’re holding festivals that draw people to us.

And there are always people who are marginalized in our society—perhaps the Lord is drawing us to a different population.

You raise cows and chickens on a farm, surrounded by flowers. What’s it like to live in a Wendell Berry story?

It’s easy for people to come to a garden setting and think, “If I could just get to this, everything would be perfect.” People often tell me I’m living their dream life. We’re fighting a cultural narrative right now that if everybody just went back to the land, we’d find salvation.

Mars Hill Farm / Photo by Julia Schwarz

But working out our salvation isn’t about self-sufficiency or farming or getting away from the city. It’s finding out what it is to be faithful with whatever the Lord has put in front of us. We’re not trying to get to a garden—as Tim Keller reminds us, the biblical story moves from a garden to a city. We’re called to think about and apply redemption with the same intentionality to the CPA firm or dentist office or school classroom.

So I’m no different than anyone else trying to follow the Lord. And we know that is costly—that’s what Jesus says. “Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost?” (Luke 14:28).

Do you really know what it is going to cost to follow Jesus? I don’t. We’re struggling day after day to make this thing work financially. And so this is a real-world wrestle for me: what does it look like for me to live out some of the costs?

It’s like the disciples—to give up everything and not know where we’re going. But we’re following anyway.

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