ST. PAUL, Minn. — Much has been made of Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home) and its harsh critique of unbridled fossil-fuel consumption, which Pope Francis argues has directly contributed to climatic changes that affect the poor and the vulnerable most perniciously.
But considerably less attention has been given to the ecological encyclical’s implications for another area of human activity closely intertwined with natural and human ecology: agriculture and food production.
According to Catholic Rural Life (CRL), a national nonprofit that applies Church teaching to the challenges facing rural America, farming is a factor throughout the document. Though there may not be a concerted section focusing on agriculture, as there is on climate change, farm-related terminology is used more than 30 times, as Pope Francis explores everything from pesticides’ contribution to water pollution to the threat widespread use of genetically modified organisms poses to the economic vitality of small-scale farmers.
For Jim Ennis, CRL’s executive director, the fact that agriculture comes up so frequently in an encyclical focusing on mankind’s relationship with God’s creation shouldn’t be a surprise.
“Farmers are working with the Earth on a daily basis,” said Ennis. “They have a unique vocation to care for God’s creation and to cooperate with it to advance the common good.”
Ennis believes that Pope Francis is calling people to an “ecological conversion,” an approach that “looks at creation as a gift, not just something to manipulate.” He says this vision of man’s place in the created order is especially relevant to farmers and should engender attitudes of gratitude and responsibility in agriculture.
For Darin Von Ruden, the president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and a practicing Catholic, the Pope’s encyclical contained a welcome affirmation of agriculture that he believes farmers don’t hear enough from the Church.
“It says a lot when you receive that much attention from the Pope,” said Von Ruden, who is a fourth-generation dairy farmer, active in Westey, Wis. “Just to hear that we’re doing God’s work and to keep up the good work is important.”
Challenges to the Status Quo
While Ennis and Von Ruden both believe that Laudato Si affirms the dignity of farming as a privileged vocation, they also say it challenges many predominant practices in American agriculture.
Both drew attention to Pope Francis’ support for small-scale food-production systems, which are becoming increasingly under threat as agriculture becomes more industrialized.
“It’s every American’s dream to prosper,” said Von Ruden, “but when we see the concentration of ag in this country, there are fewer and fewer people who are being able to live on the land and support their family.”
Ennis says this consolidation of agriculture doesn’t just have economic consequences; it has social ones as well.
“The decline of family farming impacts rural communities in a negative way and takes away the human element from agriculture, reducing it to just a utilitarian enterprise.”
Von Ruden pointed out that larger, industrialized agricultural operations tend to come with greater threats to the environment, as the sheer scale decreases the importance of careful stewardship and cultivation.
“The ecological impact of a bad actor is a lot more significant when we’re talking about a larger operation,” he said.
Ennis said there isn’t necessarily a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the size of a farm, but that all farmers need to emphasize prudence when thinking about questions of scale.
“Bigger isn’t always better. What is lost sometimes isn’t recognized until it’s too late.”
Von Ruden and Ennis said Laudato Si also has implications for the use of technology in farming. Ennis cautioned against automated agricultural practices that may promise heightened efficiency but carry other negative consequences.
“There’s a dignity to work,” he said. “Sometimes technology can undermine labor.”
Von Ruden spoke of the negative environmental and human developments associated with heavy use of chemicals in agriculture, such as pesticides and herbicides. These technologies might produce higher yields in the short term, but they can be detrimental in the long run.
“If you don’t have a good, clean water supply, you can’t produce good food; plus, you have issues in the larger community,” he said.
Encyclical in Action
While the overall direction of farming in the United States is far away from the “sustainable and diversified agriculture” advocated for by Pope Francis in Laudato Si, there are some compelling examples of farmers who take stewardship of creation and their responsibility to the common good seriously.
Brad and Leanne Donnay own and operate Donnay Dairy in Kimball, Minn. Together with their four children, the Donnays raise 225 Saanan goats on 10 acres of land, producing some of the Upper Midwest’s most sought-after cheese and milk. Between restaurants, cheese shops and co-ops, Donnay Dairy products are available in just under 100 locations, serving as the family’s primary source of income.
Brad Donnay, a fourth-generation family farmer, who started his goat operation in 2004, says he “worked backward” to determine the details of his farm. Whereas many agricultural operations aim to maximize profit, he and Leanne aimed to maximize time together as a family.
“I needed $50,000 to support my family and just figured out how many goats it would take to reach that,” said Brad of his thought process when beginning his operation.
Donnay Dairy is certified organic, and Brad and Leanne say they take pride in the quality of their work. They also celebrate the fact that their kids are able to develop virtue and work ethic by playing vital roles in family business, such as running a side operation that sells goat manure as compost.
The Donnays are aware that the way they run things isn’t par for the course in the contemporary American agricultural context, but they hope that Donnay Dairy can provide an example of farming consistent with Laudato Si and a proper understanding of the relationship between farming and the environment.
“When people come out to our farm, they see God’s creation at its prime,” said Leanne. “You can’t come out here and not see how beautiful and how blessed by God we are.”
Brad and Leanne recognize that not everyone can make a living on 10 acres of land and that there are “a million ways to farm.” Even so, Brad said there are certain universal principles of stewardship and a focus on family life that should animate all types of agricultural operations.
Still, he recognizes that business interests are entrenched against a return to small-scale, family-centered farming — which is why he says consumers’ demand for sustainably produced food will be key in the push to bring about more eco-friendly farming.
“We would’ve never been able to do what we do 30 years ago,” Brad said. “If consumers are willing to support this type of agriculture, it can make a big difference.”
Still, some of the shift toward sustainable farming needs to be come from within the farm community itself.
And Ennis of CRL believes the best way to bring about this change is to emphasize the vocational aspect of agriculture. That’s why CRL is partnering with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to produce The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader, a set of resources that provides farmers and food leaders with practical ways to apply their faith to their work.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, the president of the Pontifical Council, announced his public support of the endeavor last month at an international gathering of farm and faith leaders in Milan, Italy.
“Where agriculture undergoes conversion to the integral ecology of Pope Francis … then the whole enterprise will sustain our human beings and our common home,” said the cardinal, affirming the unique and important role of farmers in caring for creation.
Ennis says Pope Francis’ focus on agriculture in Laudato Si was “providential” and will help propel The Vocation of the Agriculture Leader project.
“Too often, we’ve left faith back at home, as if it doesn’t apply in the workplace,” said Ennis. “This project reminds people that faith needs to be part of our everyday lives, and there’s a special responsibility of people in rural communities.”
Von Ruden, along with the presidents of the farmers unions of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, is a supporter of the endeavor. He believes that changes in agriculture can only come about if farmers accept that they have a vocation to “a way of life, and not just a way to make a living.”
“Farmers are doing God’s work, and that means we need to curtail unjust concentration and greed. Hopefully, we can make a difference with this project.”
Jonathan Liedl writes from the Twin Cities. He is the communications coordinator for Catholic Rural Life.