Spirit of Farming

In the rolling hills of southern Indiana, the Oldenburg Franciscans converted their 300 acre farm into a center for organic food production, environmental education and spiritual renewal. They initiated a farm renewal program and dubbed it “Michaela Farm,” to honor an early mother superior.

By combining spirit and soil they hope to grow crops while raising awareness about the direction of U.S. agriculture. At the same time they are addressing many of the ethical concerns the U.S. Catholic bishops raised in their recent pastoral: For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers and Farmworkers.

For most city dwellers food comes from the supermarket and underscores the consumer’s mantra: sell it cheap, keep it safe. As a result, the average U.S. middle class household spends only 11 percent of its income on food — far less than the average 15 to 50 percent the rest of the world spends to eat. Despite the 1.4 million annual cases of salmonella poisoning — many resulting from inadequate cooking — the food supply remains basically safe. Yet, farming as a human activity stands apart from other types of production. Farming is not just about cheap chicken or mad cow disease. Farming sustains life itself, husbands the land and influences the economic system.

The bishops broaden the discussion on farming by raising five areas of concern: eliminating hunger, ensuring safe food, maintaining dignity for farm workers and small farmers, caring for creation and supporting rural communities. Reading the signs of the times, the bishops are growing concerned about the trends in agriculture both in the U.S. and abroad.

Whereas in 1950 America boasted 5.5 million farms, today the number has dwindled to 2.16 million. Only 10 percent of these farms account for 70 percent of all agricultural production, but these mega-farms receive approximately two-thirds of the government subsidies.

Industry concentration consolidates immense power in the hands of a few. In 1997, the top five food retailers in the U.S. held 24 percent of the domestic market, but by 2000 that share had jumped to 42 percent. “Fewer people are making important decisions that affect far more people than in the past,” the bishops write.

Among livestock processers, the four largest beef firms control 81 percent of the cattle, the top four pork firms process 59 percent of the hogs and the biggest four chicken processers handle 50 percent of all broilers. Vertical integration allows companies to own the animals from conception to market, reducing many U.S. farmers to growth technicians while living as serfs on their own land.

Approximately 50 percent of the 1.8 million farm workers in the U.S. are undocumented. American agriculture could collapse without them. The bishops recognize that a legalization program, not a guest worker program that exploits workers, would help stabilize the work force. They call for amending laws to ensure health care, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation and Social Security for all agricultural workers.

Globally an estimated 23 percent of all usable land suffers degradation, most especially from soil erosion. Causes include deforestation, overgrazing and excessive use of chemicals, the mainstay of American agriculture.

Somehow, cheap food loses its flavor when consumers chew over the political costs of concentration, the social costs to small farmers and farm workers, the ecological costs to soil and the environment and the spiritual costs to our very souls.

Michaela Farm teaches school children that farming represents not just a job, but an expression of faith. In the spirit of Sts. Francis and Clare the kids celebrate and learn respect for the bounty of the earth.

Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who lives, writes and organizes in Appalachia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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