The mission of Family Through Faith Ministries is focused on one mission expressed in three ways.
The mission is to feed people Physically, Spiritually, Mentally.
interview JULIE JOHNSON
photographs courtesy of FAMILY THROUGH FAITH FARM
When I began researching Family Through Faith Farm in Nixa, Missouri, I began to question the how. Andrew McGowan and his wife, Rachel, along with their two daughters and sporadic volunteers throughout the year, harvest thousandssss of pounds of food, only to give away every ounce locally. Not only that, but Andrew has been travelling to India for a decade to feed our neighbors across the world. Not only that, but the family hosts a Little Free Library in Nixa. Not only that, but the farm hosts the annual Nixa Maze that opens at the beginning of October with the purpose of funding the farm for the year.
Andrew, however, reminded me how insignificant the how is when the why is so crucial.
Julie: Your farm opened in 2014. Where did the idea come from to work a piece of land in order to feed others at little to no cost?
Andrew: The farm was born out of a fairly difficult time in my life. I had formerly been in professional ministry at a church in Nixa. I had been sure of this direction at one point in my life, but after a few years I was burned out and frustrated. I left the ministry and started my own business as a handyman and landscaper. Shortly after, I formed Family Through Faith Ministries as a non-church religious organization. At that point, our organization was focused on our service in India and meeting needs of homeless persons in Springfield.
At the time, my grandmother was living in Springfield. It was the same house she and my grandfather had lived in since I was a boy. Since I was in Springfield often, I would visit her. We would sit and talk about her life as a child growing up in Springfield and the surrounding area. As a boy, I would come and stay with my grandparents in that house for a week at a time in the summer. My grandfather would take me fishing. We would work on small engines in his garage. And we spent a lot of time in his garden, which took up most of his backyard.
One day it occurred to me his garden was much too big for just him and my grandmother. During a visit, I brought this up to her and asked what they did with all the vegetables. She smiled at me and said they had never really talked about it, but my grandfather grew lots of extra vegetables so he could give the to the mission. After more prodding, I found my grandfather would take boxes of produce to different organizations early in the morning and leave them on the doorstep. He didn’t want to be thanked, and he didn’t need recognition. He just wanted to help feed people.
My grandfather had passed away years before, and it struck me when he died, none of the organizations he visited knew anything except the boxes of food stopped appearing. This thought stuck with me.
As I said, this was a difficult time in my life. I was doing O.K. with my business and our not-for-profit was serving people around the world, but I still felt conflicted and somewhat empty. After a particularly difficult day cutting grass, I was at the end of my rope. As a person of faith, I decided I would find a quiet place and spend some time in prayer.
I drove to the Delaware Town access on the James River. It was a river my grandfather and I had fished often when I was a boy. I sat on the bank and watched as the water flowed down stream over the rock shelves that jut into the water. The breeze was drifting through the trees. It was a beautiful day.
I was not in a place mentally or spiritually to see the beauty around me. In fact, I was angry. There might have been many things I blamed my anger on, but really the truth was I felt let down by God. I wanted to be a help to people. It seems like a simple proposition, but the reality is life is messy. Growing and maturing in life cannot happen without change. But change in people’s lives (including my own) comes slowly. It is not something they tell you when you start thinking about a life of service to other people.
So, I sat on the side of the river and prayed. It was a simple prayer, right to the point.
“Just what the hell do you want from me?”
Nothing more, nothing less. That may not make it onto the “10 Greatest Prayers Ever Prayed” list in any church in America, but it was honest. And I feel it was answered.
As I sat there, I noticed just what a beautiful day it was. The sound of the river moving easily on its way made me think of the time in the Bible where Jesus was sitting on the shore with the disciples before the resurrection. I kept a Bible in my truck and decided I wanted to read the story again. It seemed to be alive with parallels for how I was feeling, especially in Peter, who had denied Jesus three times. Jesus asks him three times if Peter loves Him. Peter answers he does, and Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep.”
All my life I have heard this passage interpreted to mean Jesus wanted Peter to feed people spiritually speaking. But as I read it this time, I noticed Jesus himself was cooking fish for the disciples to eat. It was a beautiful picture of the words he was saying.
I immediately thought again of my grandfather. He spent no small effort in the act of feeding people. An idea started to form. What did God want from me? Feed people.
A few days later I met a friend for breakfast. I told him I thought I wanted to try and start growing food to give to people. I wanted it to be my thing to feed people. I asked him if he knew of any land for sale where I could start right away.
As it turned out, he had just inherited some land. He told me there was a fenced off corner, and I could use it free of charge to grow food. After our breakfast, we drove to it. The grass was all the way to my chest. It would be an incredible amount of work to go from pasture to garden. A few days later, I brought out my weed eater and mower and cut the grass, raked it out and hauled it off. Another friend loaned me his tiller. I tore up the ground and planted two, 15’x30′ beds of green beans. The farm had started. We grew about 750 pounds of food that summer. Since then, it has grown by incredible amounts in size and scope. Currently, we harvest around 6,000 pounds of vegetables each year to give away and help feed people in the area.
I love the idea that maybe a person who wouldn’t have a roof over their head for the night sat down and bit into that fresh BLT or those perfectly fried potatoes and had a moment where the troubles and hardship of life faded away. Maybe that food brought a little comfort or memories of better times. Maybe life seemed less harsh. And maybe they slept better that night with a stomach full of food grown for them.
Julie: You sell locally at the Nixa Farmer’s Market, but you donate to Least of These and the Nixa Senior Center. How did you decide on those two organizations? Are there others?
Andrew: As of this year we are no longer selling at the market. While I love interacting with people and the fun environment of being at a small farmers market, it took up too much time and the amount of money we made didn’t offset the sacrifice of time away from the farm. I also felt like selling produce at the market clouded some of the purpose of what our mission is. We have always donated the vast majority of our produce, but now it is very clear our goal is to feed people with what we grow.
When we began the farm, it was a big question of how we would get the food we grew to people it would help. At first Least of These served as the main outlet for our produce. That soon expanded to the Senior Center, where the produce was used to supplement the Meals on Wheels program for Nixa residents. Over the years, we have given food to many different organizations in the southwest Missouri area.
Each year, it seems we have a few main outlets for the produce that fit with the harvest schedule. This year, our two main places we donate to are the food pantry at Community Baptist Church in Noel, Missouri, and the No Reservations food trailer, which is based in Springfield.
The Food pantry in Noel is run by a friend of mine, Josh Manning. Noel is a relocation area for refugees from all over the world. The food pantry is open to anyone, and we have helped feed many people in Noel this year.
The No Reservations food trailer is the other main place we donated this year. It is run by my friend Katrin Scott. She has an incredible mission to help housing insecure folks work through all the barriers to getting their own place to live. She hires and trains people, giving them skills and income. After an event, they cook whatever food they have left and deliver hot meals to homeless people in Springfield. I think it’s amazing! We are always on the look for how our veggies can help people around us.
Julie: Beyond meeting fresh food needs, what do you hope Family Through Faith Farm contributes to the people you serve?
Andrew: To me, there are two big things in growing veggies for people. One is that I want people to have the best. We are in a unique position to supply the places we donate to with fresh-picked produce. It’s not about to go bad, or a leftover, but has been grown specifically to help people have something fresh. Many times, the produce was still on the plant a few hours before it’s delivered. The other big thing is I want people to have nutritious food. One of the first times I visited Least of These (years before starting the farm), I noticed the complete lack of fresh produce. People could fill a shopping cart with boxed macaroni and cheese or canned food, but there wasn’t anything fresh. The truth is, you can be completely full and malnourished. We hope our food meets people’s needs of fresh, nutritious food in their diet.
Beyond those practical things I hope our food brings joy. I am a foodie. I love what great food can do to someone emotionally. This summer, the No Reservations food trailer was able to make BLTs for their homeless friends with tomatoes grown at our farm. Another time, they were able to serve fried potatoes and onions from our farm. Both are foods I grew up on. I love the idea that maybe a person who wouldn’t have a roof over their head for the night sat down and bit into that fresh BLT or those perfectly fried potatoes and had a moment where the troubles and hardship of life faded away. Maybe that food brought a little comfort or memories of better times. Maybe life seemed less harsh. And maybe they slept better that night with a stomach full of food grown for them.
Julie: What is your big, audacious dream for the farm?
Andrew: This is a tough one. Since beginning the farm, I have had a personal goal to grow 10,000 pounds of food in a single season. I remember the first time we crossed the 2,000 pounds of food mark. I sat back and thought, “Wow, that’s a ton of food.” And then I laughed at the unintended pun. We have averaged between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of food each summer since 2015, our second year. Most years we creep up a little. One day we will get to the big one, the 10,000 pounds mark.
Help fund the farm and other ministries by donating to Family Through Faith. Click here for more information.
If I had a secondary condition to the big dream, it would be to be well funded getting there. It feels like we beg and borrow so much to make the farm work. I would love for it to be self-sufficient in some way. We have a completely broken business model for that to work, though. We are literally giving away the thousands of pounds of food we grow. I keep trying different things and somehow, we patch together enough resources to keep the thing running most of the time.
Julie: In addition to food, you also serve in India, host a community corn maze and offer free reading via Little Free Library at Woodfield. How?
Andrew: A great lesson the farm has taught me is life has seasons, both spiritually and in the more obvious sense. You can’t grow watermelons in January in Missouri. We only have consistent work to do at the farm in the spring, summer and fall. Which means I have a lot of free time in the winter. Every year, we grow about five acres of corn or sorghum and then cut a maze into it. We have a great little picnic and play area. We charge a small entrance fee, and it helps fund the farm.
After growing season is over, I typically make one or two trips to India between November and March, though COVID-19 has made this impossible last year and most likely this year. We do lots of great service work for people in India. We provide medicine and eyeglasses in rural villages. I have provided seeds and short lessons for people to learn to grow food for themselves. We purchase and deliver food for those nearing starvation. And I am often asked to speak to churches or small groups of Christians as we travel. We have a sense of friendship and family with the people we have been working with. I really think of India as my second home. It has been incredibly hard to be away from it for so long.
After getting the Little Free Library going, it is mostly self-sufficient. People bring books and take books. The only real problem is getting enough kids’ books, and sometimes people put in books in very poor condition that end up getting recycled. We occasionally do a book drive when our back stock starts getting low.
It may sound like a lot for one guy to do. It is. But I’m not alone. My wife, Rachel, is an incredible help, and we do get two or three volunteer groups a year at the farm. A few years ago, my wife and I decided this would be my full time thing. I can’t really call it a job, as I don’t receive any pay, but it is what I do with my time day in and day out. Sometimes people are shocked when they hear I don’t receive a salary, but for us, the money doesn’t matter. We are very blessed to have a great life. We don’t need much to be happy and are surrounded by tons of very supportive people. Because of that, I have the freedom to use my time on things I feel matter in the long run.
Julie: When the day is rough, and the conversation in your head isn’t going well, what do you do to refocus so your mission doesn’t take a hit?
Andrew: This is another tough one. Farm work is so much more difficult than people think. It seems romantic and idyllic to tuck a seed into the ground as if it’s a child in bed after a full day. But farming is war. If the bugs don’t get your crops, the weather or wild animals will. It is just plain hard work growing food. You must be on guard all the time. Sometimes it all gets overwhelming.
For me, it is important to ensure I am doing other things to make sure I’m grounded. I like to write stories for my kids which I am slowly publishing through Amazon. I love to read and learn new things. I occasionally write worship songs. I have lots of hobbies I invest myself into so my mind isn’t completely engulfed by the farm or even things that are happening in India when I’m not there.
Now, I say all that, but we all know that sometimes no matter how much we try to be proactive, stuff happens, and you get frustrated. In the moment, I try to remember the mission is the mantra, basically reminding myself to not lose focus. The mission of everything we do is very simple: feed people.
So when everything is falling apart, I have several things I will repeat to myself to try and right the ship. They are very simple: “Feed people.” It’s a reminder of purpose and path at the same time. “All things must pass.” It’s not only a great song, but a reminder that whatever is going on can’t and won’t last forever. “People before projects.” This is to challenge myself to see where I have put the importance on my day. I want to be the kind of person where people matter more to me than the project I’m currently working on. “Fail forward.” This one reminds me failure is not only an option but also a likely outcome. So, a failure in the moment is only a failure if I don’t learn something and find a new way forward.
If all else fails and the conversation in my head won’t be redirected, I have found throwing tools across the farm and chasing their flight with some colorful language can be quite therapeutic.
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