Roots. They dig deep into the soil, drawing up water and nutrients so the rest of the plant can flourish and bear fruit. If roots are infected, or too shallow, or lacking essential nutrients for survival, the entire plant will become susceptible to disease and fail to thrive.

Similarly, children rooted in chronic poverty are far more susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

When we talk about the root causes that create vulnerable conditions for children and orphans, we often have to dig deep into the brokenness lying beneath the soil’s surface. While digging into the soil of my neighborhood in Atlanta, I see how the brokenness of racial divides and single-parent families creates an intense vulnerability for the children playing just a few doors down from ours. While I was working at an orphanage in West Africa many years ago, this digging revealed a profound poverty that convinced families the only way to give their children a chance at success was to send them away. Root causes of poverty are complex and interwoven, all the more so for orphans.

Research consistently reveals two phenomena, as documented in the Faith to Action Initiative’s Summary of Research to Help Guide Faith-Based Action. First, the majority of children placed in orphanages have at least one living parent. Second, “Poverty, not lack of caregivers, is often cited as the reason for placing children in orphanages” (page 4). While there is an urgent need to meet the needs of orphans and vulnerable children, there is an equally urgent need to address the poverty that places so many children in orphanages to begin with.

An estimated 400 million children in the world live in extreme poverty (defined as living on $1.25 a day or less); furthermore, two-thirds of these children come from families whose livelihoods depend on subsistence agriculture (World Bank Report, October 2013). Picture the child of a subsistence farmer, so lovingly cared for, even while her family cultivates a miniscule and often marginally productive plot of land with minimal inputs. Now picture this family with a flourishing garden, a diverse selection of nutritious vegetables, and enough production to earn a bit of income for school fees and medical bills. Clearly, addressing rural agricultural needs is directly correlated to building families’ capacity to adequately care for their children at home.

Fortunately, there are excellent organizations responding to Christ’s call to care for the poor and vulnerable through programs aimed at improving farmer families’ livelihoods. Such programs take seriously the biblical mandate to care for Creation: to cultivate the soil in a way that increases its fertility for years to come, to steward our limited water resources, to rediscover oft-neglected plants that God specifically designed to thrive in poor conditions, to better understand our interdependence on the land and steward it well, and to ensure that God’s children have the resources they need to thrive.

The three faith-based organizations and approaches to agriculture development highlighted below are by no means exhaustive, but simply offer a glimpse into the breadth of options available for strengthening the families of resource-poor farmers.

First, agriculture training allows farmers to gain new and innovative means of improving their crop production. A bigger harvest means more food to eat, and perhaps even a surplus to be sold for added income. One of World Renew’s primary means of training farmers is through Farmer Field Schools that bring together groups of villagers to test out sustainable agriculture techniques. When my husband and I lived in Cambodia, there were several of these Farmer Field Schools in our province. Farmers experimented, for example, with an improved type of rice cultivation that requires no specialized tools, but results in significant increases in crop yield. For these farmers, improved nutrition and income equate to healthy families that can provide for their children’s physical needs. Moreover, local churches are better equipped to reach out to their neighbors in very practical ways.

Similarly, improving farmers’ access to appropriate agricultural inputs like seeds can boost farmers’ options for selecting crops that are highly nutritious and able to thrive even in difficult growing conditions. A greater diversity of nutritious crops minimizes farmers’ vulnerability to crop failure and consequent economic hardship. ECHO offers agricultural resources including a seedbank of over 300 types of underutilized vegetables, grains, and cover crops (which are planted to improve soil fertility). One of the seeds most commonly requested is moringa: a “miracle tree” that grows quickly, has highly nutritious leaves that can be used to combat malnutrition, and can even be used to filter water. For several decades ECHO has witnessed time and again the children and families whose health and nutrition have drastically improved by growing moringa and other nutritious crops.

Finally, savings groups and low-interest-rate loans boost agriculture businesses and facilitate access to local markets. Food for the Hungry has a farming program in an arid region of Ethiopia that has helped farmers develop small-scale irrigation systems and savings groups from which they can access loans. One of the families that participated in this program now has enough food for the entire year and is able to send their daughter to school. Furthermore, the father (an Orthodox priest), who had intended to leave home and seek work elsewhere, is now able to earn income from home so the family and faith community remain intact.

Good agricultural development starts under the ground. It begins with building healthy soils rich in nutrients so roots grow deep. It is dependent on growing the capacity and confidence of farmers to steward the land they know and love. It inherently fosters a deeper understanding of how to care well for all of God’s good gifts, plants, children, and families alike.

Deep roots allow vulnerable children to flourish, and God’s promise to His children is clear:

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11).

Daphne Fowler has worked in the field of international community development for over 7 years, and earned her Master’s degree in Cross-Cultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary.  She and her husband most recently served with Mennonite Central Committee in Cambodia as Partner Advisors for Capacity Development for 3 years.  They now live in Atlanta with their two little girls.  Daphne is currently at home with the girls while working part-time as a Grant Writer for ECHO, a Christian organization that provides agricultural resources for resource-poor farmers, and also writes for Faith to Action.  She enjoys adventures, the outdoors, and dreaming of another trip to Nepal.