Farm Progress

Speakers address the integration of faith, food production and the environment.

Paula Mohr, Editor, The Farmer

April 5, 2018

5 Min Read
FAITH AND FARMING: David Velde (left), vice president, World Farmers Organization, speaks at the national conference, “A Noble Vocation — Integrating Faith, Food and the Environment,” at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Fred Kirschenmann (center) of Iowa State University and John Ikerd of the University of Missouri sit to Velde’s left.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.” — Leviticus 23:22

And with that biblical reference offered by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, the second national Catholic Rural Life and Farmers Union conference, “A Noble Vocation — Integrating Faith, Food and the Environment,” opened, providing panel discussions and dialogue on the important social and spiritual connections associated with food production. The conference was held March 21-23 at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota Farmers Union and the university’s Catholic Rural Life program helped sponsor the conference.

The first panel for the conference focused on the future of ag and environmental challenges for ag leaders. Panelists were Fred Kirschenmann, director emeritus of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University; John Ikerd, professor emeritus of ag economics, University of Missouri; and Meg Moynihan, state programs administrator principal, Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

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AG LEADER APPLICATION: The conference’s first panel talked about the future of ag and environmental challenges. On the panel were (from left) Fred Kirschenmann, director emeritus of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University; John Ikerd, professor emeritus of ag economics, University of Missouri; and Meg Moynihan, state programs administrator principal, Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Incorporate the spiritual with quest for profit
Kirschenmann, a certified organic farmer with roots in North Dakota, made note of other references in the Bible that discuss the human-earth interaction.

“In the original Hebrew, [those words] mean to serve and preserve, not till and care, in relation to Mother Earth,” he said. “If we’re going to serve and preserve ‘the garden,’” Kirschenmann said farming in the future would best be served by farming more closely with nature.

“When farming is just a business, we need to be careful it doesn’t lose its spiritual content,” he said.

Kirschenmann said current efforts by some farmers to incorporate reduced tillage, cover crops and increasing diversity of operations are “the right directions we need.”

Ikerd referred to modern agriculture as a blessing and a curse — a blessing for people who can afford to eat, but not the earth, which is hurt in the process.

“We have created an agriculture that is not sustainable, and future ag leaders needs to address that challenge of interconnectedness of the mental, physical and spiritual aspect of food,” Ikerd said. Until the 1800s, farming had a connectedness to nature and worked with it. Farming has always had an economic component, but it also had a social aspect back then.

“We’ve tipped the ecological system too far,” Ikerd said. “We’ve lost the social and spiritual values of food.”

He noted that since the 1980s, as farms became larger, profit has been driving agriculture instead of stewardship and community.

“Ag leaders need to be spiritually rooted in the earth for themselves, for their communities and for the future of humanity,” he concluded.

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INTERNATIONAL CHALLENGES: The conference’s second panel discussed international challenges of faith, food and the environment. Serving as moderator was (far left) Geri Sicola, vice president for strategic partnerships and external relations, Lutheran World Relief. Panel members were (from second left) Loretta Ishida, LWR deputy regional director for operations, Africa; Rick Peyser, LWR senior relationship manager, coffee and cocoa; and David Velde, vice president, World Farmers Organization. Ishida talked about working with farmers in the West African country of Niger to develop greater food security during the dry months. Peyser gave an overview of global coffee production and discussed LWR efforts to help coffee farmers in Nicaragua. Velde noted similarities among all farmers across the globe: providing for family, access to markets and water, and working with integrity.

Numerous stresses
Moynihan, who operates a 70-cow organic farm with her husband as well as working for MDA, shared her family farm story of severe financial and mental stress. She took time off from MDA in 2016 to work on the farm when her milk buyer told them it would no longer buy the farm’s milk. For a couple of months, they dumped their cows’ milk while trying to find a new market for their organic product. They did find a new milk buyer and Moynihan returned to MDA, taking her personal farm lessons with her.

“When I got back to MDA, I said, ‘Do you know how bad it is out there? There is a crisis of spirit. Dairy farmers are producing milk below cost of production. Farmers can’t get operating loans,’” she recalled. She shared her experiences with the agency about rural isolation and the exhaustion.

Soon after, MDA talked with farm groups, such as Minnesota Farmers Union, and decided to conduct a survey to gauge farm financial and mental stress. Of the 543 respondents who participated last fall, 80% said they noticed an increase in financial worries, 32% reported an increase in depression, 58% said they saw an increase in anxiety and 40% noted an increased in feeling burned out.

Moynihan explained how and why these stressors are different and unique for farmers:

• Farmers work where they live. They don’t go home at the end of the day — they are already there.

• Co-workers can mostly be family members.

• They wrestle with responsibility versus control. Farmers feel responsible for just about everything, she said, but some things are beyond their control.

• Farmers have multiple roles, include some work off the farm.

• They feel a sense of isolation, loss of peers and loss of community.

Moynihan encouraged ag leaders to have courage and compassion for what farmers are facing. And for farmers?

“Recognize and admit what is going on, and have the courage to act,” she said.

About the Author(s)

Paula Mohr

Editor, The Farmer

Mohr is former editor of The Farmer.

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