A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author, who is passionate about every aspect of the food world—from interviewing chefs to supporting local farmers and to making the connection between food and faith
Maine resident Max Becher, who grew up in the affluent farming and tourist community of Ojai, California, embraces his life as a Catholic and as a farmer. Not to be confused with the German artist Max Becher, the American Max Becher probably does see farming as a work of art, God’s art with crops of various colors, sizes, and categories.
Despite Ojai’s semi-agrarian environment, what really brought Becher into the agricultural life was his childhood love for reading farmer-inspired books such as the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, he said. “I saw farmers as heroes,” he said. “I decided I wanted to be a cattle rancher, and that idea matured and took the form of the family farm when I met my wife, Dierdre Wood.”
As it turned out, a family friend of her father, who happened to be an organic farmer, hired Becher to do some farm work. “I worked for him,” he said. “And I slowly came into the small farming community in Ojai. I was also studying theology and Catholic social teachings and writing about food.”
As newlyweds, the couple chose the farming life, despite well-intentioned dissuasion from friends and family. “People kept telling us ‘It can’t be done. It costs too much money. It takes too much work,’” he said. “At that time, I had different teaching jobs, and my wife taught violin. We slowly started our farm project out of driveway and backyard. This came out of our desire and love for the rural lifestyle. It is interesting to see how we matured with agriculture and Catholicism.”
For the next four years, the Bechers started raising chickens and growing micro greens on their property, before leasing a nearby property to expand the micro green crops and to raise vegetables and even to grow olives in a nearby orchard. Eventually the multiple enterprises got to be more than they could handle, so they scaled back, starting first with the poultry.
But the couple felt committed to the farming life. “Farms are a natural habitat for the family,” he said, “and I discovered this in the writings of Catholic bishops and priests from the mid-1930s. All the more do we need families to discover the value of rural living.”
And Becher had another important inspiration, the group called Catholic Rural Life, of which he is now a board member. He found much of its literature when he was trying to learn from Papal Encyclicals and from the American priests who wrote the manifesto of rural life.
Society has been on an urbanization trend for more than a century, he said. “The society ignores rural communities at its peril,” Becher said, losing its virtues, neighborliness, thrift and hard work. “Pope Pius XII gave a speech in 1946 to Italian famers saying that mankind must take great care to preserve genuine rural culture.”
To settle in a truly rural area, the Bechers started thinking about a gigantic move, and prayed a novena for guidance. “It was a huge transition,” he said. “We felt really called to Maine, to the parish of Farmington, two hours north of Portland. ... There are only 8,000 people there. We rent the rectory.”
Asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit, the couple are waiting for the right call to start farming again. “It will be at least a year,” he said. “We follow the Holy Spirit, and we see opportunities everywhere.” In the meantime, Becher blogs at FirstStepsFarm.com.