LEXINGTON, Ill. — The virtues of faith, hope and charity formulate the foundation bond of the Fellowship of Christian Farmers International.

The organization was formed nearly 30 years ago during the American Soybean Association Expo in San Antonio, when a group of farmers met to discuss the need for an organized Christian fellowship of the farming industry.

It was felt by those at that initial meeting that farmers and agribusiness folks are in an occupation that is burdened with stress. Therefore, there was a need to build each other up by sharing needs in prayer and emphasizing Christian fellowship.

That first meeting sparked an interest that spread nationwide, and the FCFI, which is a nondenominational ministry with no affiliation to any particularly commodity group or ag organization, was formed.

The FCFI has assisted farmers on both small and large scales since its formation by sharing faith, providing hope in troubling times and offering charity in the form of countless volunteers sharing their time, talent and treasure through mission work.

One of the FCFI’s main roles is to cultivate friendships, according to Dennis Schlagel, executive director of the organization.

“Farmers make new friendships. Years ago, we had neighbors that were our bosom friends, and we helped each other, we shared equipment and all of that,” he said.

“Well, that’s not how it’s done today. There’s some of that, but with the weather on the radar, the guys check it often every day and with touch-to-talk phones, Skype and cell phones, farmers may have their best bosom friends in another state.

“There’s still that need to air-out, and some guys make decisions better when they can talk about it, so the fellowship by helping guys make good friends in other states is a tremendous resource to have great friends that you can share what’s going on your farm or any anxieties you have — you know it’s not going to go anywhere. Friendship cultivation is really important.”

The FCFI’s annual conference is Aug. 2-4 at the Embassy Suites Cincinnati-River Center, Covington, Ky., and offers a chance for farmers to cultivate new and old friendship and share ideas and concern.

“We break up the group and put them into small groups. It forces them to meet people. When we go to our annual conference in Cincinnati and break into small groups, people are really eager to share what’s on their heart,” Schlagel said.

“There is a real need for friendship cultivation in agriculture today, so we try to do that, and we try to keep mission trips going. When we put a mission trip together to go to Haiti or Jamaica or Mexico, we wind up making a friend. That’s really valuable today.”

Over the years, the FCFI has provided the power of hope to rural residents impacted by hurricanes, tornados and other disasters.

It is at that time when the victims are experiencing one of the lowest points in their lives and the FCFI is there to help them rebuild fences, cleanup debris and other duties to help mend the victims’ lives.

“When a disaster hits a farmer, I don’t care how long he’s been farming, all of a sudden two generations of fence is gone. And your neighbor’s stuff is gone. And you’re a tough guy,” Schlagel said, using southern Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina as an example.

“All of a sudden you don’t think straight. When you’re in the midst of it and it’s your farm, you don’t think right. You can’t decide if you should fix the bent metal on the machine shed, start building fence or what you should do.

“Well, farmers are tremendous counselors. You get two or three farmers who have been through a disaster themselves and show up on the scene to help, they’re tremendous counselors. They listen, they find out and they put a plan together.

“I always tell folks that all I’m doing is keeping a great American tradition going. If you have a fire in a barn, you see the barn and fire and you just come. You don’t have a committee meeting and you’re taking care of animals, you’re taking care of people, you’re doing interim things.

“Well, when you have a major disaster like we’ve had from hurricanes to tornados that are on a scale like Joplin, Mo., those are not normal storms, and there is a widespread area of people affected. Your neighbor can’t help you because he got hit, too.”

Schlagel noted the tornado that struck Henryville, Ind., in early March of last year.

“Guys were getting ready to plant, and it’s the busiest time of year. But the guys would call me up and say, ‘Dennis, a storm hit our place six years ago and 100 guys came and helped put the farm back together and there’s no such thing as a well-timed storm.’ He made two trips to Henryville to help guys get back into the field.”

Schlagel said one of the farmers impacted by the tornado in the Henryville area was ready to get out of farming.

“He was that low and then volunteers went to the farm and within five days they had two-thirds of the perimeter fence back up and they put up an electric fence. Then the FFA chapter hauled hay in. They just came in with a plan. It was so amazing,” he said.

“The youthful enthusiasm of FFA kids showing up on a farm that’s been all tore up is a contagious thing to have kids turning a tedious task into fun.

“I’ve always said farmers are the best counselors to each other, and that’s what you really need in the middle of a crisis like that — just helping them see that we’re going to put this back together.”