By Bren Dubay
January 2022

Betsy Ross

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break. –William Shakespeare

There was something about the light in those blue eyes. Betsy’s eyes and smile made that first encounter seem so right … then she spoke and that thick Texas accent took me from, “This seems right,” straight to “This is right.” I was home with Betsy from that moment on.

Brendan Prendergast and I heard about her at a seminar on intensive grazing. Not only were we intent on doing right by our cattle but we wanted to do right by the planet. Our awareness had grown and we were uneasy with the way Koinonia was tending the pecan orchards. Pecans were by far our largest farming operation, and we had become convinced the way we farmed them needed some rethinking. What were we to do about the synthetic chemicals so harmful to animals, insects, plant life, land, soil, air, water, and humans but so necessary to saving the pecans from disease that made them die and fall off the trees long before harvest time?

Probably we were naïve about the appropriateness of bringing up pecans at this seminar on grazing, but we did and one of the speakers opened a door for us. The speaker told us about this woman in Texas who not only raised cattle using the intensive grazing method, she revolutionized it, and was now working with pecan farmers (and others) starting from the soil up to help grow healthier food. Her focus was the soil—healthy microbial life in the soil. It resonated with us. “Go talk to Betsy,” he said.

So, Jim Dubay and I went home to Texas to meet with Betsy. She agreed to see us but she voiced doubt. “I know Texas. You’re in Georgia. Texas keeps me pretty busy. I don’t know how I can help you way out there in Georgia but come on and see me anyway.” (Imagine this being said in a Texas accent—ahh, Betsy’s Texas accent, like music to me). We pulled into the drive at Ross Farm in Granger near Austin and she came out to greet us. There was an instant rapport. She was fascinated by this notion of the human community at Koinonia and we were fascinated by the description she gave us of the community that resides (or would if we didn’t “nuke” it) in the soil.

As we talked about the soil, I remembered Clarence Jordan’s words, “I don’t know whether you’ve walked out over a piece of ground and it could almost cry out to you and say, ‘Heal me, heal me!’ I don’t know whether you feel the closeness to the soil that I do… Somehow God has made us out of this old soil, and we go back to it, and we never lose its claim on us.”

Before we left Betsy’s farm that day, the paradigm shift had begun and we had a new vocabulary—mycorrhizal fungi, protozoa, fish emulsion, trichogramma wasps, nematodes, and more. We wanted to be stewards of a natural system rather than forcing ourselves upon it. We were passionate about partnering with “Mama Nature,” as Betsy called her, to create healthy ecosystems. Weeds were to become our helpers and insects and diseases became the inspectors of our farming operation. We trusted that they would help us know what nutrients may be lacking. We learned about microscopic bacteria that live in a healthy, balanced soil and why the soil at Koinonia may be lacking them.

Mother Teresa said, “Some people come in your life as blessings. Some come in your life as lessons.” Betsy was a blessing and taught us lessons. Many. She came to Koinonia as often as she could. We returned to Ross Farm to see her. Those who know much more than I do about farming corresponded with her by email, phone calls, and text messages. She adopted us. She was scheduled to come to Koinonia for a stay in May 2020. We all know what happened in 2020. It wasn’t until 2022 that we saw her again.

The soil is getting healthier and healthier here at Koinonia. I got to tell her that when Michael (Neevel), Jim, and I went to see her at Ross Farm just fourteen days ago. We knew it could be the last time. She was in hospice care. Just thinking about how grateful I am for the chance to see her one more time takes my breath away. 

Each of us spent more time with her that day than I thought possible. She was sharp and full of insight as ever and still teaching and encouraging us. She gifted Michael with books from her own library and had Jim ordering others online. Through me, she sent messages to deliver to different people back at Koinonia. She loved every one of us. She told me to keep being courageous. I don’t know how courageous I am but if Betsy says I am, I guess I better give it some credence.

Nine days after our visit, Betsy died.

Betsy not only nurtured our soil, she nurtured our souls. Both are healthier for it.

Dr. Seuss wrote, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” 

But I don’t think it’s over. Just changed. We’ll see you on the other side, Betsy.

Betsy standing outside in a field of yellow flowers