Farm Crisis

‘Till the Earth and Keep It’

“And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker’ — so God made a farmer.” This opening line from Paul Harvey’s famous speech to the Future Farmers of America (FFA) in 1978 is a sort of continuation of the Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. This iconic speech poetically flushes out the “details” hidden in the first commandment God ever gave to humankind: “Till the earth and keep it.” (Gn 2:15)

What is most unfortunate is that most of the “details” of “keeping the earth” as elucidated by Paul are completely alien to the lived experience of many modern human beings. People live more and more in a virtual reality sheltered from the basic reality of creation, food production and caring for all creatures great and small. What percentage of people know how to milk a cow, wean a pig, plow a field, or know the difference between corn meal and corn silage? Perhaps even more sadly, with the rise of “industrial farming,” when many people think of a “farm,” they don’t relate it to caring for Creation but polluting or harming it.

As Catholics, we walk with those who have answered the call to “till the earth and keep it” and with those who seek to answer it now and in the days to come.”

The vast majority of farmers throughout history have been the primary stewards of creation. This is certainly my experience of growing up “with hay in my boots” on a traditional family dairy farm. Farming makes one attuned to the “heartbeat” of the earth and, thus, to the One who created it. It instills in us a respect for nature and the humility that we cannot control it, but must work alongside it for the good of others. The work of a farmer is something deep that is difficult to explain except with a word used frequently in other contexts: vocation. But I’d argue that the vocation to farming is distinct from other occupational-related callings. It is the primordial vocation established by God at Creation, along with marriage, motherhood and fatherhood (“be fruitful and multiply”). God certainly calls people to all sorts of work—to be doctors, teachers, writers, and engineers—but to be a farmer runs deep into the roots of what it means to be human. And so, although the life of modern man is increasingly alienated from Creation, God still calls us today to “till the earth and keep it.”

How is God calling us today? Certainly He is calling all of us to be good stewards of creation, wherever and however we encounter it. Whether it’s deciding on what fertilizer to use on one’s lawn, our recycling practices, planting a garden or where we buy groceries, each person makes decisions daily that fall under the command “till the earth and keep it.” Even more than that, I think that God is definitely calling us to be concerned about our “neighbor” who is trying to make a living by farming. God is calling us to learn more about the current state of farming in our area and work to create stronger community ties between farmers and non-farmers. And lastly, we ought to foster in the minds and hearts of young people that farming is a real vocational possibility, because no matter how much technology replaces human labor, human beings will always need good farmers in order to survive.

Although farming looks different than it has in the past, people are always the same. Farmers need the help of a broad community in order to fulfill their vocation. It has been very tough recently for dairy farmers in Wisconsin, who have led the nation in farm bankruptcies for the last three years. Milk prices have been lower than the cost of production for almost five years now. Almost 700 farms closed in Wisconsin in 2018, and another 300 between January and May this year. The broader non-farming community is finally becoming more aware of this ongoing farm economy crisis and its effects. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have a mandate to care for others who are in need. If you are only capable of a phone call and a promise to pray, many farmers would gladly appreciate it.

Whatever the future brings, we know that the vocation to “till the earth and keep it” will always resound in the hearts of men and women. As Catholics, we walk with those who have answered that call and with those who seek to answer it now and in the days to come. We need farmers or, in the more eloquent words of Paul Harvey:

“God said, ‘I need … somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners; somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church; somebody who would bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh, and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says that he wants to spend his life “doing what dad does”’—so God made a farmer.”

Father Daniel Sedlacek, Associate Pastor of St. Mary Parish in Altoona and St. Raymond of Peñafort Parish in Fall Creek

Rural Life Day is an annual diocesan celebration observed on the fourth Wednesday of September. Part of this celebration is Mass on a farm with Bishop Callahan. This year’s event will take place on Sept. 13 and is hosted by Otter Creek Farms, owned and operated by Joe and Marce Ortner and Dan and Lori Ortner. The farm is located at 6608 Cty Rd A, Pittsville, WI 54466. Please join us as we highlight the uniqueness of rural life values and rejoice in the way that rural life contributes to the Church at large. Bishop Callahan will celebrate Mass at 10 a.m. followed by a program and meal. As part of this annual celebration, recognition is given to Century Farms, an outstanding farm family and individuals who’ve made significant contributions to rural life.

To learn more about the current farm crisis in our diocese and what you can do, visit diolc.org/farm-crisis.

Prayer in honor of St. Isidore
Patron of Farmers

O God, who taught Adam the simple art of tilling the soil, and who through Jesus Christ, the true vine, revealed yourself the husbandman of our souls, deign, we pray, through the merits of blessed Isidore, to instill in our hearts a horror for sin and a love of prayer, so that, working the soil in the sweat of our brow, we may enjoy eternal happiness in heaven, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Rural Life Prayerbook, (TAN Books) 2014

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