Of farms and churches

Last week we took a walk around the city of Lynden, Washington. Lynden is a community of about 12,000 people located 15 miles north of Bellingham, about 5 miles from Canada. It is an agricultural community, with lots of farm-related businesses, but the downtown has an urban feel with a wide variety of shops and cafes. The weather was pleasant the day we stopped to take a look so we parked at a hardware store and walked a couple of miles around the downtown area. There were some lovely old homes and wide streets and a lot of churches. As we walked we could often see four or more churches from any street corner. Not only were there a lot of churches, but they had big buildings that showed a lot of energy had been invested in their care. The names of the churches struck us: Covenant Grace Reformed Church, Faith Reformed Church, First Reformed Church, Third Christian Reformed Church, United Reform Church of Lynden, Netherlands Reformed Church, Bethel Christian Reformed Church.

I’m sure you can recognize the theme we noticed on our visit. The prominent denomination of the area is Reformed. It says quite a bit about the theology of the folks and the history of the community. Of course, we also saw a Lutheran Church and a couple of independent churches, but it is clear that the Dutch heritage continues to make itself evident in the congregations of the city.

It isn’t just the city of Lynden, though it seems a bit more apparent there than in some of the other towns of the area. There are a lot of signs of Dutch heritage in this region. We saw two Dutch style windmills in Lynden and I know of the location of several others in the two county area we have been exploring since our move. These windmills are not working mills, but rather buildings constructed to look like traditional Dutch windmills and erected as advertisements and reminders of the Dutch influence on the area.

One of those windmills is located near Mount Vernon on a large commercial tulip farm. In about a month the farm will be a destination for tourists who want to take pictures of the fields full of blooming tulips and the farm store with its tulip bulbs for sale will be a place to visit. We visited it several times before we moved to this area. We’ve purchased tulip bulbs that have been given as gifts to family members and the plants are growing in several different states.

Dutch immigrants were intentionally attracted to the Skagit Valley in northwestern Washington because of the Dutch experience with farming in coastal plains. Some of the agriculture of the area is dependent on the management of lands that are a part of a river delta, rich with tons and tons of soil that has been washed down from the volcanic mountains and spread out into the ocean. Those lands were largely salt flats and not productive as agricultural areas when immigrants began to flood into this area in the 18th and 19th centuries. They brought with them farming techniques from the lands they had left behind.

Among those immigrants were many of Dutch heritage. In the Netherlands, people have farmed low-lying coastal areas for centuries and developed agricultural techniques that work well in this region. They built dikes to hold back the seawater and reduced the saltwater flooding of the land. In the area behind the dikes they farmed the sediment-rich soil. Among the crops for which the Netherlands is famous are tulip bulbs grown for export to other places where flowers are desired.

The agricultural techniques of the Netherlands have been refined over the centuries in part because the region has attracted a large population with a relatively small amount of agricultural land. As Europe goes, the Netherlands isn’t one of the largest countries in terms of land mass, yet it supports a large population. Like the Netherlands, the part of Washington where we live is more densely populated than the other places where we have made our home during our lives. We keep repeating a line from The Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I don’t believe we are in Kansas anymore.” Of course we have never lived in Kansas and sometimes we change the quote to “South Dakota.” We aren’t living on the Great Plains of the center of the continent as we did for much of our adult lives.

The interesting thing about the Dutch connection around here is that the Netherlands continues to be a place of agricultural innovation. As the population of the world increases at the same time as the amount of agricultural land decreases a crisis of huge proportions is developing. In the coming decades food production will need to become exponentially more efficient in order to avoid mass famine. The Dutch are leading research into modern techniques to increase production. Huge greenhouses are being operated with increasingly sophisticated technologies to maximize the production of food from small areas of land. Satellite images are being used to give a larger picture of agricultural production while seed monitors and remote cameras are allowing computers to analyze individual plants and provide data on how to increase production.

Our increasingly connected world no longer requires mass immigration in order to share farming techniques in new areas. Much is being learned from the agricultural practices of The Netherlands that is influencing the way farmers will produce food in the future around the world.

We don’t yet know where we will find a home to purchase for the next phase of our lives. We are a bit anxious as we look around and shop for a place to settle. Living in a rental house gives us the freedom to consider many possibilities. Like the Dutch settlers of years ago, a church home is very important to us. Unlike them, we are not at a life phase where we will be starting a new congregation. And we will be able to commute to worship. For now we are worshiping online during the pandemic. Soon, we hope, we will be able to worship face to face once again. Instead of bringing the church with us as the Dutch immigrants did so long ago, we’ll try to move close to an existing congregation.

We didn’t find a United Church of Christ congregation in Lynden. If we settle there we’ll have to be willing to commute 15 miles - a task that is not too big of a challenge for us. If we do, we’ll be driving past several Dutch Reformed Churches.