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What do farmers give up to observe the sabbath?

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

Most of my research focuses on agricultural technology, farmers’ use of precision agricultural technologies, and farm data. However, sometimes my work has more of a general farm management theme. A recently published study has the broader perspective but asks a specific question that has not been formally addressed quantitatively--’What is the whole farm cost of consistently observing the Sabbath?’

Religious tradition often informs how people behave in their personal and professional lives. Many agrarian examples are provided in both the New and Old Testaments in the Holy Bible. In developed nations such as the United States, where weekly church attendance is observed by roughly one-third of rural residents, farmers often make the decision to attend corporal services or perform chores.

Several rural route expressions are tangentially religious-based. One notable example includes "paying the preacher" regarding farmers' fields appear to receive disproportionate precipitation at just the right time relative to less fortunate neighbors. During infestations of pathogens and insects, people often refer to “Biblical proportions” referring to locusts, toads, and apocalyptic stories from Revelation.

There is no end to parallels between production agriculture, even in the developed breadbasket of the United States. It occurred to us that very little measured impact of adhering to religious tradition on production agriculture were available especially for the USA. We considered asking “what happens if Midwestern farmers follow Levitical law specifically adding a year of fallow every seventh year?”; however we were not in a position to enact that deliberate experiment. We needed to be able to test something that was measurable and decided to evaluate a much more common issue that was feasible by parameterizing existing farm management models; so, we asked “what does it cost Midwestern farmers to strictly observe the Sabbath?”.

Building upon a recent graduate student thesis (Rosburg, 2017), we parameterized a whole-farm linear programming model (Rosburg and Griffin, 2018) to evaluate the costs of taking a half or one full day (Rosburg, Griffin, and Coffey, 2019). Brian Coffey and I decided to take a more indepth evaluation into costs farmers may endure from observing religious traditions. We estimated the costs of shutting down farm operations for differing levels of Sabbath observation across peak (planting and harvesting times) and non-peak seasonal time periods. Substantial costs are likely to occur, indicating that rational Sabbath-observing farm operators must perceive at least a base level of perceived benefits. We estimated that farmers who keep the Sabbath consistently, gave up $1,785 per year (smaller acreage farm) and $7,980 per year (larger acreage farm). Economists familiar with downtime models will recognize how we approached this question. We only evaluate the cost side of the benefit-cost equation; however, we did mention both tangible and intangible benefits in the paper published in Faith & Economics earlier this year. As far as we know, no existing information was available on whole-farm costs of observing the Sabbath.

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