Nathan Brett and his preacher
father seek grace by growing grain.
A socket wrench clanged against the rusty innards of a John Deere combine, thumped the machine’s mammoth tires and flopped in the dirt in a ruddy puff.
It’s a late June morning on DaySpring Farms near Danielsville in Madison County. Acres of golden wheat swayed ready for harvest as two farmers prepped the machine that would haul it in from the fields.
"You’ve got to really crank on it," said Murray Brett, 54, picking up the tool and handing it back to his son, Nathan, whose body was pressed uncomfortably close to rubber belts, sheaves and other whirring parts of the combine’s threshing apparatus.
"I know," Nathan, 29, said, "I just didn’t grip it right yet."
Nathan slipped his arm high into the gear house and locked the wrench onto a bolt. With each turn, two metal wheels spread farther and farther apart, making taut a new rubber belt the father and son had replaced that morning.
"Pull with all you’ve got," Murray said. "We need it as tight as it can be."
Nathan sighed deeply, a polite barb of annoyance, and brought the force of his shoulders onto the wrench, tightening the sheave in place.
"I’ve got it," Nathan said. "It’s fine. Let’s give it a shot."
Murray, dressed in a gray, quick-dry button-up shirt and gray chinos dark with sweat, climbed a ladder anchored to the combine, hopped on one of the machine’s man-size wheels and into the pilot house. With the turn of a key, the harvester revved into action. Whizzing belts sounded a successful repair.
"Do you have time to ride out in the field with me?" Murray asked, his voice a soaring baritone, his small eyes dusky and kind.
Nathan was due in two hours at the Athens Farmers Market. The corners of his eyes tightened and his linebacker’s shoulders slumped, the green, sweat-wicking nylon shirt loose at his belly. He knew that running a test harvest with his father, seeing how their rickety combine would hold up, and checking the moisture level of their wheat crop, were only a few of the day’s many priorities. A few days into what should be wheat threshing season — a time when beans and squash were ready for market, too — the combine shared space at the top of their to-do list.
Murray and Nathan completed their first wheat harvest last year, and their used John Deere gave them troubles. To simplify the chug and churn mechanics of a combine harvester, the outtake hadn’t been keeping up with the intake. Wheat stalks clogged the belts meant to expunge the spent chaff from the thresher. It was a mess.
They aimed to rectify that problem this year, and rectify it quickly.
Nathan stared at the loose gravel and clay at his feet. He ground the toe of his weathered boot into the dirt and stones. The shoe’s plastic skeleton, which had long ago advanced through the taut leather skin, gained another layer of dust. He wanted to say no, thinking of his wife, Simone, 24, bagging lettuces in the packing house and watching over their 6-month-old son, Noah, who busied himself with plastic screwdrivers as his forbears muscled steel ones outside.
Nathan was eager to prep for market, where he networked with restaurants, bakers and brewers, strengthening and expanding the customer base for their grain. He also needed a shower.
But if there’s one thing he’d learned in working alongside his father as they’d built DaySpring up from weeds and brush, it was this: Listen to the old man.
Nathan exhausted another sigh, one of those barbed and hushed intimacies saved for loved ones, and answered.
"Sure," he said, "but only for a minute."
The prodigal guitarist
The prodigal guitarist
"I wanted to be the next Ryan Adams or Bob Dylan," Nathan said.
He grew up on hymns and Psalms in the church where his father preached. As a teen he learned the guitar and performed in the church band between his father's prayers. From his home in Madison County, he could reach the rock 'n' roll mecca of Athens by car in 20 minutes. Music consumed his thoughts, and he wondered if he could wrest something creative from six strings and write his own songs. He enjoyed the sound of his voice and thought others would, too.
Nathan attended the University of Georgia, studying history and music business. When he finished school, his want for stardom had not waned. Nashville called. He interned for a year at a small recording studio, and at night he wrote songs and explored the bustling singer-songwriter scene.
After his internship ended, he got a job loading and unloading trucks and cooking in a restaurant. Time to write music and perform grew scarce.
Back home, Murray worried. What kind of life was his oldest son choosing? Nathan sought a life on tour, onstage, in bars. A family would be impossible to maintain. He knew the temptations that awaited Nathan if he succeeded. Murray feared that spiritual bankruptcy loomed.
He began a hard press. Nathan calls it a bait and switch. It started on a shrimp boat.
Every summer Murray took his three sons to the Georgia coast to toss seine nets for shrimp. One evening, tending to the day's haul, Murray asked about Nathan's long-term plans. Murray wanted to know when Nathan would wake from Nashville's trance.
Everyone says give it five years, Nathan said.
I don't think you've got five years, Murray said. In five years you'll be 29 and starting over; you'll have to find a new career, start at the bottom. What if you have a family by then? Come home, Murray pleaded, we'll work together, father and son. We'll open a wood shop, make guitars. Maybe we'll do a little farming, who knows?
Nashville had fatigued Nathan. He submitted.
Back in Madison County, Nathan realized his father had no real plans to be a luthier.
Seeing retirement on the horizon, all Murray's friends were starting farms. Murray wanted to farm, too, Nathan believed, just like he did when he was a kid.
Guitars were the bait, Nathan said. The farm, the switch.
Murray tells a different story. It was Nathan who wanted to farm, not him. He'd have done any kind of work Nathan desired, as long as they worked together, as long as his son was home.
Each narrative serves the teller. Murray wished only to save and support his son, the eldest who absconded for a distant land, nearly squandering the spiritual treasures his mother and father had embedded in him. Nathan's version emphasizes failure and salvation; it legitimizes the path he's on today — the righteous farmer. He sought fame instead of God and was punished, made unbalanced, depressed. It reduced him, he said, close to nothing.
"Six years ago, I was bound and determined to see my name in lights," he told me as he peeled the clay-stained tunic from freshly harvested garlic bulbs. He spoke with wry smiles slipping from the corner of his mouth, escaping thick knots of beard, stiff and protruding like a Pharaoh's jaw. "By nature, we want to be the son and the sovereign. But if we constantly promote the greatness of our own name, there will be hardship. Now, I can see the end of that kind of lifestyle being physically, mentally and spiritually detrimental. I watched those doors close, I closed them. I see my options now and I'm happy."
Frequently, he echoes his father: "I'm reclaiming a better, more productive way of life for myself and my family."
PHOTO 1: Nathan Brett cleans garlic for market and drying.
PHOTO 2: While Noah sleeps, Nathan’s wife, Simone Brett, bags lettuce for the Athens Farmers Market.
Philosophy in the field
In September 2011, Murray and Nathan bought 90 acres of sloping brush and young trees in Madison County. So far, about 40 acres have been cleared. A thin, flat plateau splits the land in two. On this part they've built a white, two-story building that serves multiple purposes: Nathan and Simone's home, the farm's packing house, a wood shop and a mill.
Nathan prefers verdant rows of mixed vegetables — the heirloom tomatoes and versatile squashes of market farming — to the tedium of tractor repair and row crops like wheat. But in the three years since he and his father shoveled out their first load of red clay from the Madison County acreage now known as DaySpring Farms, Nathan has realized that deep roots must be sown to succeed at an agrarian profession.
His original approach to the trade was plant a seed, harvest the vegetable and sell it to a restaurant or at a farmers market. A simple and honest tack, but one he soon realized made little money. Not enough to sustain a business. Not near enough to raise a family.
DaySpring Farms needed a row crop, Murray had told him all along, a harvest they could depend on. Raising collards and okra, they'd nickel and dime their way to financial stability. Murray's family must sow a legacy.
If DaySpring's star crop wasn't canola, or cherry tomatoes, both of which they tried to varying outcomes, maybe it would be wheat — the red winter variety that grows so well in Georgia.
Murray and Nathan hoped so. Their futures depended on it.
The Bretts have so dug into wheat's potential that they built a mill to turn organic wheat kernels into flour. After leveraging the family's savings to purchase the land that is DaySpring and construct early infrastructure, the mill is perhaps the last stem that can support the farm for the long term, offering year-round income. Local, organic wheat is an anomaly in Georgia, but it's not yet clear whether an empty market equals monetary success.
For Nathan, it means everything. His livelihood. His dreams.
For Murray, it's that and more. He believes that farming alongside his oldest son is helping both men "reclaim a more productive life" that's attuned to the dirty, yet fertile earth God made for them. There is beauty and honesty, Murray says, in providing nourishment just as Christ feeds souls.
But philosophy without income is untenable. The wheat crop must thrive. The flour must sell. That harvester had better work.
PHOTO 1: Red winter wheat nearly ready for harvest at DaySpring Farms.
PHOTO 2: Bags of DaySpring Farms flour rest in a storage room, ready for delivery.
A pastor’s journey
Murray Brett is a small but hearty man with a silver goatee and strong opinions he's eager to share. When I met him on my first trip to DaySpring last year, he was brandishing a long-handled garden fork and whacking away at a mound of weeds that had overtaken an annual flower bed.
"Do you have children?" he asked me. Each syllable, sorghum slow and exploratory, was kind but investigative. "They are the light of this world."
Drenched in sweat from his beard to his boots, he leaned for a moment on the farm tool and proceeded to rail against social ills: the pursuit of fame, the Kardashians, dependence on technology, self-help styled Christianity, mega churches, the Joel Osteens and those salvation-by-donation ministries. All are culpable in society's collective decline, he said.
Modern life offers us too many distractions, he continued. Brush them away. Focus on Jesus Christ, work in a manner that would honor him. Get some grit under your fingernails. Murray Brett wants it like it used to be.
Murray grew up in Jefferson County, tending to cattle and hogs morning and night; a chore-filled childhood led by a father who started a mobile feed mill and later sold grain silos to farmers around the South.
At a young age Murray obsessed over how things work, the nature of machines, simple and grand. His inherent interests led him to study engineering in college. Degree in hand, he climbed quickly up forestry industry ranks, designing and installing mills around the South. The work kept him on the road, but then he met the woman he would marry, Paula. He resigned forthwith.
As a child he'd admired the pastors who led services every Sunday; their voices engaging and riveting the gathered believers. Following a similar path had interested him, but only in his late 20s, about to enter parenthood, did he consider attempting a sermon.
He remembers an elder at the Jefferson County church where he first guest preached. The old man rose from his pew, post-sermon, and told the whole congregation that Murray had a gift and he needed to use it.
"It was an affirmation," Murray said. Committed to deliver the word of God, Murray, his wife Paula, and newborn Nathan, packed up for Los Angeles and seminary school in 1984. During three years in Southern California, the Brett family expanded, adding two more sons and a daughter.
By 1994, the Bretts returned to Georgia, to Ila, a small community in Madison County, where local businessmen sponsored Murray to found a new church, Grace Baptist, which he still pastors today.
Since 1984, his faith has evolved, Murray said, from the moralistic, dry religion of his father, to an active faith. God in every moment.
To Murray, doing more means working hard and with purpose, preferably something that requires muscle and problem-solving. In particular, farming.
Murray and I careened down bumpy dirt roads in his white pick-up. Behind our seats, crumpled receipts risk wind-swept exodus through open windows. A change of clothes hung from a hook; ripped-open washer and nut wrappers were scattered on the floorboards. We were racing through one unpaved artery then connecting to another, hustling toward the John Deere dealer in Carnesville.
Two bushings, a bolt and two nuts to fix the combine awaited Murray at the shop.
Along the way we discussed the philosophical basis of his beliefs. He mentioned Augustine and the Pelagian controversy, then thrilled himself at the chance to talk Calvin.
"I read not what people said about Calvin, I read it myself," Murray said. It changed him, distinguished his emerging faith from his father's Baptist church.
Teasing out the connection between his religion and the field isn't easy or direct. He talked of productivity, of a life less easy, of middle-class laziness. Farming, he seemed to say, helped his family shed excess.
"It hasn't fared well for us, excess," he said. "I choose not to have it anymore. But by so many standards, we still do have excess. Time, for example. We can waste it."
Murray is shocked when the John Deere salesman announced the price of two bushings, a bolt and two nuts: $168.
"I'll have to work a little harder to pay for these parts," Murray said to no one in particular.
Every Sunday, a 400-square foot, cement floor room in the DaySpring Farms packing house hosts Grace Baptist Church.
"We don't have stained glass and all that," a church member said, acknowledging the bare walls. "But we have strong faith."
Attendance was sparse at a service in early July; a few members were battling disease, Murray explained, and we should send them our prayers.
Nathan and Simone were set up with a piano and guitar in one corner. Nathan sang the words of Martin Luther over alt-country guitar strums. Simone, head bowed, accompanied him with twinkling electric keys.
Murray was relaxed in short sleeves and khakis, leaning on a podium in front of rows of stackable chairs. Behind him rose a wall that separated his flock from stacks of flour milled from the wheat he and his son had grown.
Eyelids clenched, congregation rapt, Murray began with prayer: "We want to bless and not curse; smile and not frown. Do good and not turn our backs. Help us, O Lord."
The day's sermon concerned Daniel's prayer from the Old Testament.
"At lunch today, discuss your sins around the table," Murray said. "Hold yourself accountable for your transgressions, do the same for your family."
Murray is not interested in effortless faith, but the struggle need not be fought alone. That's what kin and church family are for.
The Bretts were not the only farmers at Grace Baptist. As service ended, conversation among farmers and their farm-hand children turned to work. Nathan stood among them, bouncing Noah on his forearm as the farmers grumbled about organic certification, plant diseases and weeds. Always weeds. Nathan nodded. Farming is tough, often more than he can imagine.
Summer at DaySpring has not passed without issue.
Early June saw good weather and relative peace as they harvested the wheat. Then it rained for what felt like forever. Stuck inside, their plans were gummed up and productivity stalled. Days upon days of rain kept new seedlings from the fields, pushing back and jeopardizing future harvest dates. Other stresses, too: A necessary price hike in their flour was poorly received by customers.
Add a new father's sleeplessness into the mess of hassles and Nathan became frazzled.
What was the point, Nathan asked himself, in work for work's sake? Four years in and they'd reached their financial tether. He questioned if they'd learned anything, improved at all, become better farmers. At every turn, Nathan felt tested.
Through the troubles, Murray urged his son to keep on task. You must stay focused for the farm, Murray warned, there's no time to dally.
Nathan bristled — he hated being told what to do — and communication between father and son curbed. Days passed with spare words exchanged between them. They called in a church elder, another farmer, to mediate.
The three men strolled the DaySpring grounds.
I am not against you, Murray explained. We can only do this by working together.
Nathan admitted to feeling overwhelmed; he humbled himself and apologized. Still, he struggled to stay positive.
Despite Nathan's doubts, the season so far had been a success. The combine ran fine. There were a few hold ups, but fine. The wheat crop came in just fine, too, all 13 acres of it. It's milled and ready for delivery. They took in the canola, as well as test plots of oats and a Midwestern turkey wheat a baker asked the Bretts to grow. They cultured seed, helped it survive to harvest and delivered it to market. But perhaps Nathan himself experienced the greatest maturation.
Nathan started farming with a young man's confidence, a surety that told him his gut feeling was always correct. His chosen profession, though, challenges him daily. He did not expect his morale to hit bottom when things didn't go as planned.
"I have to take each day as it comes," Nathan said. "What I think should happen doesn't really matter that much."
ABOUT THE REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
André Gallant is a writer and photographer based in Athens. He edits a quarterly magazine about food and agriculture called Crop Stories, and is at work on a book about Georgia’s oyster fishery, “The High Low Tide,” due out in 2017 from the University of Georgia Press. He blogs regularly about food, farming and fisheries at www.andre-gallant.com.
Read André Gallant's earlier Personal Journey on former businessman Justin Manley. "The Spat King" chronicles Manley's effort to revolutionize Georgia’s oyster industry one waterman at a time.