According to Genesis 1:29-30, God created the garden of Eden depicting the growth of plants and animals and forming humans as farmers to care for the soil. Then in John 15:1, Jesus tells people that His Father is a farmer, underscoring for life the importance and gravity of farming. After all, without God’s food raised by farmers, humans would not exist.
These messages are universal and timeless, and Catholic American farmers have an inspiring resource nationally that connects their rural life with their faith—Catholic Rural Life. As its Executive Director, James Ennis, noted, Pope John Paul II visited Iowa in 1979, and spoke to a crowd of over 300,000 people. “What he said to those people affirmed that all who are involved in agriculture are supported by the Church,” said Ennis. “Catholicism is supportive of this ancient vocation to care and cultivate the land, and to provide food security for the world.”
American farmers and ranchers are involved in agricultural production, and they tend and till the land in harmony with God’s design, Ennis added. “It is a different mentality than simply relying on the latest technologies to do what they want to do with the land.” But sadly, he added, there are those who do not understand that vision.
“In 2011, I spoke to a large group of farmers and farmworkers and presented the nobility of farming,” he said. “And five farmers came up to me afterwards saying they had never heard that the Church supports farmers and all those involved in producing our food. ‘Why haven’t we heard this before?’ One of the reasons might be that of the 244 Catholic universities, not one of them has a school of agriculture. So good-hearted men and women of good faith don’t get informed of any view of agriculture from a Catholic perspective.”
Ennis’ colleague, Tim Streiff, Program Manager, Thriving in Rural Ministries and CRL Chapters, speaks often to rural farmers. As he noted, “One thing I have been surprised about is that when I talk to large-scale farmers who are not organic, they, too, want to treat the land well and to use environmental practices,” he said. “That could mean using fewer chemicals, so they must learn to make the land more productive through crop rotation. That equals higher yield with fewer chemicals. They are usually enthusiastic about that.”
Catholic Rural Life’s messages do reach rural farmers, as Air Force veteran Art Befort, owner of ALB Farms in Smith County, Kansas, said. “I was raised Catholic on a farm near Lebanon, Kansas. I spent 45 years as a civil aviator. In 2011, I moved back to the farming aera near Lebanon to farm. I farm about 500 acres of wheat, soybeans, corn, and sorghum, adhering to present-day conservation practices, incorporating a strict No-Till Farming System.”
What inspired Befort was attending a local Catholic Rural Life Conference entitled “The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader.” The conference concentrated on rural life and, more specifically, on farming that integrated Catholic teachings and scripture, he said. The takeaway? Farming is a religious vocation. “God made the earth, and he has entrusted us to care for it. Thus, there is a natural bond between farming and spiritualty because of God’s creation.” Befort’s target? In the end, to leave the soil on the farm in better condition than when he started. “My Catholic roots will help me achieve that,” he said.
There are also several Catholic lay initiatives aimed at young farmers and at those who are contemplating a rural farming life. Among these is the Catholic Agrarian, formed by Max Becher, who formerly served on the board of Catholic Rural Life. Owner and farmer of First Steps Farm in Kennebec County, Maine, Becher said he raises “a diversified array of fresh vegetable and storage crops for home use and animal feed. We raise a small flock of chickens, turkeys, and graze one steer on our pasture. The steer is rotationally grazed.”
He said that it is man’s duty to serve others in humility and to show humility for how God created the world. “In nature, animals are always on the move to feed and to have a sanitary life,” he said. “As it turns out, that is beneficial for the land. The land needs grazing and fertilizing, and these were made to be in harmony with each other.”
He added that the method of rotational grazing means getting away from steel, concrete, and imported fertilizers. In increasing numbers, lay Catholics are coming to understand that the same God who created nature is being violated when farmland is depleted and polluted. Over the coming decades, the concept of a truly Catholic-inspired farming may begin to take root in the hearts of the faithful, he said. But, he added, “Farmers are now less than one percent of the American population, and the average number of those farmers is almost 60 years old. I say ‘thank you’ to the one percent who still work so hard to keep us fed and encourage younger farmers to question the industrial paradigms of the post-WW2 agricultural era as they enter this exciting field of stewardship.”
Fortunately, there is an upcoming generation of youthful farmers who have indeed embraced the rural life. Among these is Jesse Straight, owner and farmer of Whiffletree Farm in Warrenton, Virginia. He is a staunch believer and advocate that farmers recognize their relationship to the Creator of the world that He has given to mankind. “God didn’t make land without animals; he did not make the natural world as monocultured crops,” he said. “Instead, God designed plants, livestock, and soil to be in a symbiotic relationship. Our job is to discern that and to be willing to submit to His order.”
It takes work to recognize our fallen inclinations like greed, he added, which can tempt us to cut corners against God’s natural order. He pointed out that industrial farming imposes its own order on the natural biological order by doing things like crowding animals into barns, but this is not healthy for the animals, land, or people who eat the food. Again, God made animals to thrive in a symbiotic relationship with sunshine, fresh air, plants, and living soil.
On his farm, Straight raises his meat chickens, laying chickens, and turkeys on fresh pasture, and his beef herd is one hundred percent grass-fed. He has been such a successful farmer following God’s intentions that he has opened a farm store on the premises and delivers his farm products to various parts of Northern Virginia. As Straight concluded, “We have to submit our desires to God’s order. That is how as a Catholic I approach farming.”
And John Cuddeback, Ph.D., philosophy professor at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, is not a professional farmer, but he does farm on his own property, growing numerous varieties of fruits and vegetables. His successful approach? “Enriching the soul: I love to follow what is clearly a natural plan for soil enrichment: using the manure of animals as well as the ‘green manure’ of other plants. This approach takes a little more patience than commercial fertilizers, but it has great fruits, literally…. I try to use the principle to leave the land better than you found it.”