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Rural realities conducive to ecumenism

Fairfield farm

Farm near Fairfield

With farms and agricultural businesses consolidating, incomes being static, populations declining and improved transportation, economic realities have cultivated cooperation among rural Inland Northwest churches, too. 

Two years ago, the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Fairfield, a town of 590 people 35 miles south of Spokane, chose to call one minister, the Rev. Paul Anderson, a Lutheran.

Two retired farmers, Karl Felgenhauer of First Presbyterian Church and Glenn Leitz of Zion Lutheran, recently described how changes in community life and farming practices influenced their churches’ decision.

While about the same number of people live in Fairfield now as have for 20 years, in the last few years, one of two agricultural chemical businesses moved and two of three farm machinery companies consolidated. 

“Agriculture is our base,” Karl said.

Those changes came because family wheat, lentil and pea farms in the Palouse hills have been consolidating in recent decades for efficiency and to be competitive.  So they need fewer, more skilled people to run the labor-saving farm machinery.

grain elevator

Grain elevator

The size of farms is unbelievable, but they are still family farms,” said Glenn, a third-generation farmer who never married.  For a while, a nephew helped him.  Then he leased his farm and retired 10 years ago.

Farms are now from 2,000 to 4,000 acres, but still run by a father and son or sons, he said.

“During my farming years, one farmer could support a family by farming about 800 acres,” he said, adding that some farms are still 800 to 1,000 acres, but use older equipment, so those farmers have to do their own repairs.

Schools followed the trend of consolidation. 

Once neighboring communities and Fairfield had their own local schools for kindergarten through high school.  Now the Liberty School District draws students from Fairfield, Waverly, Spangle and Latah to Liberty High School and Liberty Junior High-Elementary on the Spangle-Waverly Road near Spangle.

The consolidated high school opened in 1961.  Until the 1980s, there were two schools for grades one to eight, East Liberty School in Fairfield and West Liberty School in Spangle.

Fairfield street

Main street in Fairfield

Fairfield has a 45-bed nursing home, a pharmacy, a hardware store, a grocery store, the locally owned Bank of Fairfield, a branch of the Spokane County Library, two farm machinery dealerships, two farm chemical companies, a cooperative grain elevator and a dentist.

When Karl was a child, Fairfield had three Seventh Day Adventist doctors who settled there after World War II and worked until retirement. 

Karl then served on a task force to search for a doctor.  They could find no doctor willing to move there, but a group of five doctors in the Spokane Valley agreed to serve the clinic as a satellite. 

The Indians on the Coeur d’Alene reservation, once impoverished, used to come to the clinic.  Now with casinos, they have their own wellness center, now drawing Fairfield residents.

Some people commute to Spokane to work, so now, Karl said, he doesn’t know who lives in a third of the houses in Fairfield.  Some are transient.  Others use it as a bedroom town and don’t interact in the community, unless they come to church.

While some young people stay, many leave to find opportunities.  Some young people commute, drawn to Fairfield by lower-cost housing.  Others move to Fairfield for a startup job. 

About 15 years ago, Karl said, there were some single mothers, but when laws changed, they had to find jobs.  Now there are fewer because transportation costs offset cheaper housing.

“Fairfield doesn’t supply all needs.  There are no clothing stores, and our grocery stores lack variety, so many people go to Spokane or Spokane Valley stores.  For nonperishable items, like hardware, we know if we don’t shop locally, we’ll lose a store, so we go to local businesses as much as we can,” Karl said.

“The quiet, pastoral rural lifestyle offsets the lack of economic opportunity,” he added.  “You can trust your neighbors.  You don’t have to lock your car, but we take our keys out.”

Karl, a fifth-generation farmer, said his oldest daughter, Marci Green, and her husband, Lonnie, farm with him and are members of the church. 

Marci, a CPA, was at the Bank of Latah before she took over bookkeeping for the farm. 

She and Lonnie, who were high school sweethearts, like small-town living.

“Lonnie is from Spangle, worked on farms and liked it.  He was not in a position to be in his family farm, so he worked with me four years before he became a partner,” Karl said.

His daughter Julie schedules physical therapy at Sacred Heart and Jill is a speech therapist in Richland.

Karl said his faith connects with his occupation, because “a farmer depends on the good Lord to provide moisture for crops.  We live and die by the grace of the Lord to nurture our crops to a bountiful harvest.  We pray for the rain or to shut it off or for sun and warmth.  Plus, we see the beauty of God’s creation every day on the land.”

So he seeks to be a steward of the land and leave it in better condition than he received it. 

“With today’s farming techniques, that’s possible,” he said.  “Now we have next to zero erosion.”

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © October 2006