"Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society."
Caritas in Veritate, June 2009.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
Special interview: Bettering rural life with Christ. Part 1
On the Feast of St. Isidore, the patron of farmers and laborers, we begin a two-part interview with Catholic Rural Life, looking especially at the issues faced by farmers in rural America. Part 2 of the interview can be found here.
Introducing us to the organization is Robert Gronski, a part-time policy
correspondent for Catholic Rural Life. His duties involve tracking federal legislation and
policy perspectives on farm, food, environmental, and rural community
issues, and helps frame these within the perspective of Catholic social
teachings. He joined the staff of CRL in 1999 after completing doctoral studies
in political economy of agriculture at the University of Missouri-Columbia,
Department of Rural Sociology. He also brings an international perspective to
Catholic Rural Life with his development work experiences overseas, mainly
Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Previously based at the CRL office in Des
Moines, Iowa, when he worked as the full-time policy coordinator, Robert now
works part-time from his family home in St. Louis, MO. Contact him
Catholic Ecology: Tell us about Catholic Rural Life. When did
it form? What are its primary goals?
Robert Gronski:Catholic Rural Life, previously known as
the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, was founded in November 1923
during a gathering of bishops, priests and laity meeting in St. Louis,
Missouri. They shared common concerns about Catholic families in rural areas
and thereby determined it was time to form an active
organization. Most Rev. Edwin V. O'Hara, then director of the Rural
Life Bureau of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (which later became the
United States Catholic Conference and eventually the U.S. Conference ofCatholic Bishops), was the energetic guide behind this
rural initiative. O’Hara saw that the rural church was underserved in terms of
priests, churches, and Catholic schools. So in its early years, Catholic Rural
Life was primarily interested in religious education for rural Catholics and
the challenge of anchoring families to the land.
The Great Depression of the 1930s probably shaped the CRL
organization more than anything else during those early years. The economic
plight of farmers occupied a great deal of attention by federal government
officials, not to mention state and local ones. President Roosevelt and others
felt that prosperity for the nation would not return until farming was a decent
livelihood again. Their solution was to create government support programs to
increase the price of farm products. This was part of the much larger New Deal
The hard times of the Great Depression, coupled with the
environmental challenges of the Dust Bowl era, followed by the trying times of
World War II, created a strange twist: Catholic Rural Life as an organization
attracted more members than at any other time in its history. If you can
imagine life before the internet and digital communications, Catholic Rural
Life somehow maintained an active network of diocesan rural life directors. It
seems we were better known at that time throughout the countryside than we are
I should mention that the most popular and well-known
leader, Monsignor Luigi G. Ligutti,
held the reigns for Catholic Rural Life during the 1940s and 50s. He was the
first executive director by that title and established the main office in Des
Moines, Iowa. Ligutti was a great spokesman for Catholic rural life, and many
thought of him as the personal symbol of the Catholic agrarian movement. He
expressed the importance of family farms and love of the soil as the
foundations of a virtuous nation.
By the way, it was also at this period of time
that St. Isidore the Farmer became the patron saint
of Catholic Rural Life and, of course, to all farmers and farmworkers in the
United States. Initially his feastday was celebrated on March 22, but this was
subsequently changed to May 15. St. Isidore, pray for us!
Let me jump to the early 1980s: this was another rough
stretch for farm families and known by many today as the farm crisis. Fluctuations in the
farm economy, along with the economic and farm policies of the federal
government, took their toll on the countryside. During the 1970s, farmers were
strongly advised to expand acreage and production, which meant carrying heavy
debt loads. But then farm prices fell dramatically as the global economy
faltered and farm exports dried up.
During this period, Catholic Rural Life and dioceses in
farm states groped for ways to respond pastorally to farmers who were either in
danger of losing their farms or had already lost their farms. Social action and
rural life directors started counseling programs and support groups. Efforts
were made to become more active in changing or fixing agriculture policies that
were now detrimental to farmers.
Much of our work today continues to focus on
agricultural, food and environmental policies. We are part of several national
coalitions and efforts; we also connected with international groups, but try to
stay grounded by regular contacts with local groups. Like other membership
organizations that depend on annual dues and grants, we are susceptible to
economic downtowns, such as the one that hit the country in 2007-08. This
curtailed are program work and reduced our active presence for a few years now.
However, Catholic Rural Life is currently regrouping. Our
90th anniversary last November served as impetus: we could persevere knowing we
had made it through rough periods in the past. New staff members have come on
board this year; funding and project grants have picked up again. Many still
believe there is a need for a faith-based group like Catholic Rural Life to
bring a voice of hope to the challenges facing farmers, rural communities, the
environment and the world’s food system in a time of great changes.
CE: What are some of the most important issues
related to farming today?
Gronski: This is a question that can be answered in many ways.
Farmers will look at it one way, agribusiness processors another way,
conservationists and sustainable food advocates yet another way, and even food
consumer groups will have their perspective.
We could spend a great deal of time examining the farmer
category by breaking down the different kinds of farmers or ranchers throughout
the U.S., which region of the country they operate, and whether or not they are
a working farmer on the land. (That might sound strange, but it has to do with
landowners who rent farmland and absentee farm investors.) But let’s skip over
these categories for the moment and highlight what appear to be major concerns
as expressed in the farm press and by agribusiness observers.
The rising cost of industrial agriculture is
certainly near the top of the list. The ever-greater demands on fossil fuel
use, water irrigation and topsoil resources (namely synthetic fertilizers) are
making it increasingly costly to produce sufficient food for a growing
population who still want it cheap and abundant. Just imagine what will happen
– politically, socially, globally – as agricultural resources become not only
scarce, but are depleted in various parts of the country, not to mention the
world. Many further question the very nature of industrial agriculture and whether its grievous impacts on the environment should be allowed to
This leads to farmland management as a related
and rising critical issue. We cannot continue to drain the nutritional value of
the soil and expect to replenish it with cheap synthetic
inputs. Sustainable agriculture proponents – and Catholic Rural Life is decidedly in this camp – are calling for a new
agrarian mindset of soil and water stewardship. Sound practices must be
renewed, such as crop rotation and use of cover crops, to help the soil
replenish its organic material. Grazing and livestock management also requires
greater attention and care; grasslands can be readily replenished under proper
land and cattle management.
Let me say that everything begins and ends with the land.
The opening chapters of Genesis seem to bear this out when it comes to our life
on this earth! For us in the modern world today, we need to stay aware of
preserving good farmland, particularly near cities and towns where the economic
incentives of urban sprawl tend to outweigh ecological rationality. Even in the
wide-open spaces of rural areas, we need to take care in continually plowing up
marginal lands; that means preserving grasslands that should remain as natural
habitats. Finally, we need to publicly support the stewardship of productive land
on working farms, thus protecting the soils and sustaining our agricultural
production for generations on end.
A third important issue generating a great deal of
discussion is food waste. Some observers have estimated that on a global
basis, we might be wasting as much as one-third of the food coming off the
field. Some waste occurs in the agricultural production process itself; this is
followed by food loss in post-harvest handling and storage; and there is also
loss in processing and distribution. Then there is a sizeable percentage of
food waste by the consumer – you and me! We put too much on our plates and then
throw it out; we buy too much at one time and let it spoil; or we simply don’t
like the look or taste of something – and toss it.
This is the world we live in: sufficient food for many,
yet hunger for some, obesity for others, and an inordinate amount of food waste
still to deal with. As a society, we are alarmed by the human health concerns
of malnutrition, whether too little food or too much. We should become equally
alarmed to the impacts on the environment. The industrial method of production,
the intensive use of fossil fuels and the subsequent waste along the way are
simply not sustainable for the world’s growing population.
Thus, Catholic Rural Life joins with those trying to
change U.S. farm and food policies. Our recent efforts in the new Farm Bill
(more descriptively, Food, Farm and Jobs Bill ) are evidence of that.
But just as important is reconnecting the general public, far removed from life
on the farm, to how their food is grown and processed. This is the beginning of
CE: What would you like the average consumer to
know about the farms and the families who feed the rest of us?
Gronski: Catholic Rural Life has for many years now tried to
create awareness among “eaters” (meaning the public) about what is happening in
farming. Our campaign called “Eating is a Moral Act” was a striking
way to engage consumers in relearning where their food came from and what important
issues they should be aware of. By the power of their eating choices, which is
to say consumer choices, they could create change in how food is produced and
who gets to stay on the land and produce that food.
So the “ethics of eating” (as we also refer to it) was
our way to reach out to an urban audience and to the many parishes who no
longer have strong ties – or really any ties – to farms and rural areas. But
they still have a great concern about food and the environment. Catholics, like
many other faith traditions, have always been concerned about hunger and its
primary cause, poverty. They are perplexed as to why farmers are able to
produce so much food and yet many still go hungry. This gets to the other side
of the question: what is really happening in the structure of our food system?
Why is the market failing to feed everyone? Why is the market creating
incentives to erode the ecological foundations of food production?
Farmers and ranchers will grow and produce what people
want to buy and consume. You might say, “Well, of course! Why wouldn’t they?!”
The modern structure of agriculture, however, sets a powerful “middleman”
between farmer and consumer. I’m referring to giant agribusiness corporations
that control the handling, processing and marketing of the food we eat. Farmers
and ranchers are producing for those giant firms since that is how the
structure of the agricultural system in our country works. Because these are
first and foremost business corporations, they “source” (look for, contract
with, buy from) the “most efficient” crop or livestock production – which is to
say the lowest cost at the acceptable quality – and then processing and
packaging the final food products in a way to capture the most profit.
This system works fairly admirably when they are plenty
of competitors vying for the product coming off the farm and the product going
into supermarkets and other food outlets. But when those middlemen become few
and big and powerful, then we become rightfully concerned. They set industry
standards, they heavily influence federal policies, they lose any transparency
they might have had and we can only guess at what we are consuming. (A good
source to learn more about agribusiness concentration and what to do about
it: Organization for CompetitiveMarkets.)
But coming back around to farmers and their families, we
already know that their numbers continue to dwindle. Technology makes that
possible, but I think it is wrong to believe it makes it inevitable. “It’s just
the way it is,” I often hear in reaction to the industrialization of
agriculture and the big getting ever bigger. I say it is the way the powerful
have shaped it.
At Catholic Rural Life, we believe that most farmers and
ranchers feel a vocation towards growing the best food they can for the health
and daily nutrition needs of all people. Our network of members and partners
favor the family farmer and fret over the continued loss of the family farm.
Actually, I believe we will always have family farms: some will just be very
large operations and many will be much smaller “niche” farms. The problem is
not really the size or scale of the farm; it’s whether or not we will have a
sufficient number of farm families who make rural life thrive. It’s not just
about growing food: it’s raising a family, sending kids off to school, filling
shops and churches, and building community. The values it took to make that all
work are the values a country needs to remain secure and sustainable.
Family farms accomplished this in the past, so we should
not let them slip away because it’s more “efficient” to produce food on a giant
industrial corporate scale. (Fortunately we’re not there yet, but the tendency
to head in that direction clearly is.) There is a common belief that family
farmers are good stewards of the land; this was the case when one generation
planned to pass along the family farm to the next. They knew their land and
they took care of it. As today’s farmers retire, however, their children may no
longer see a future in farming; it is a capital-intensive business and the
margins are thin. It is not uncommon for the land to go into the hands of much
larger farm operations or farm investors. Maybe they will be good stewards; but
first and foremost they will be businessmen.