Wirzba learned that and other “gardening” lessons following in the footsteps of his grandfather on the family’s 400-acre farm in Alberta, Canada, where they raised cattle, wheat, barley, and alfalfa using traditional practices. He recalls the unhurried rhythm of each day as they did the hard but satisfying work.
When his family opened a small cattle feedlot, Wirzba quickly saw how even such small scale industrial farming was destructive to land and animals. In order to fatten large quantities of cattle for sale to a processing facility, a feedlot takes cattle off pastures and puts them in confinement where they are fed grain, silage, or corn. This requires the use of fertilizers and pesticides, growing only one type of crop on farmland, more acreage, and large machinery.
“I saw that farms cannot be sustained on this model of getting bigger and bigger to survive economically,” says Wirzba, whose experience led him to reject farming as a career. “It also makes farming no longer enjoyable, but stressful. Good farming, like my grandfather did, has at its core the care of animals and the land as its first priority.”
In college, Wirzba majored in history until “falling in love” with theology and philosophy. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy, he taught at Northern Illinois University and Loyola University in Chicago and at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. He then went to Georgetown as an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and later became the department chair.
Although he rejected farming as a career, Wirzba did become a theological gardener of sorts. “I am trying today to perform my work in the spirit of my grandfather’s work. It is the spirit I try to carry into my garden — both literally and figuratively,” he says.
Wirzba’s research, teaching, and writing interests are at the intersection of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian studies. He focuses on understanding and promoting practices to equip rural and urban church communities to be more faithful and responsible members of creation.
As Christians start thinking more seriously about eating and food production, Wirzba hopes they will demand changes in the economy to create a more just food system — one in which all people can eat, farmers are properly compensated, and the land and animals are treated with care and respect.