“Agriculture as Sacrament” – by Fr. Bud Grant
For several decades researchers at the Land Institute near Salina, Kan., have been working on what founder Wes Jackson calls “agro-ecosystems.” Rather than chemical and till intensive farming of non-native annuals, farmers could use natural hybrids of native perennials. Eastern Gamma Grass and Illinois Bundleflower, for example, produce three and four times the protein of corn, respectively. The trick, not yet solved, is to get these plants to produce a profitable harvest. The bigger problem is getting people to eat them. Although there are 200,000 species of plants, only 12 account for 80 percent of our consumption. Just a few of these agricultural species, along with alien weeds (the tumbleweed, for example, snuck into the U.S. in the burlap bags of winter wheat from Russia) have crowded out the great prairies that constituted one-third of the continental United States.
A similar problem persists in animal husbandry. Today a few entrepreneurial producers profitably raise bison. One gentleman near Joy, Ill., told me that bison saved his farm from foreclosure. Another bison producer who used to sell out of her garage freezer now operates a neat shop along the highway. But these are the exception: Bison husbandry, though growing rapidly (81 percent more this year than five years ago) is a fraction of cattle production (31,000 head vs. 34 million). This is odd. Our adoptive continent hosted vast herds of bison—one early French explorer commented that it would never be necessary to import cattle, and he was observing only the New England fringe of the great black swarms of bison! Alas, we opted to destroy the herds (in part a deliberate strategy to crush the resistance of bison-dependent native tribes) and replaced them with Eurasian cattle. Brucellosis, that dreaded disease so many now associate with bison, arrived with cows (and for the record, there is no documented case of bison to cattle transmission under natural conditions).
The result of these missed opportunities for native farming is evident in the Heartland. Corn and soy have replaced the 350 native species of forbs and grasses so that in Iowa, for example, only 0.001 percent of the original grasslands are left. Cattle and a few other imported breeds dominate the meat markets.
But imagine what ‘agro-ecosystems’ and ‘native husbandry’ would look like on our great American farming landscape. We would not till the soil: native perennials need periodic fire, not the plow. Our fields would host many species together, harvested a few times a year as different plants produce their seed. Rather than losing soil, a native ‘field’ would actually add one-fourth ton of soil per acre per year. In pastures of native Big Bluestem, Canada Wild Rye, Prairie Cordgrass, etc., we would find bison, elk, and whitetail grazing on nutritious plants that we otherwise can’t convert to useful calories. There would be no need for chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, steroids, and anti-bacterials.
Some sectors of the farming economy will have to reinvent themselves: machinery manufacturers, chemical companies, and seed producers. So will farms and small towns: native farming encourages what folks like Phillip Selznick call “rural eco-regionalism,” meaning small communities grounded in an identity of place, a “rootedness” that implies not only stewardship of the land but a sort of moral unity with one’s neighbors. But radical re-making of the rural land and socio-scape has happened before, and rapidly…when post-World War II technology, innovation, chemistry, and even deliberate social engineering reduced the farming class from more than 50 percent to fewer than 2 percent of the nation’s population. We can’t go back, most don’t want to, but given our call to save our land and our society from ecological crises, we do need to move forward. Catholic environmental ethics can contribute a positive rationale for this transformation of rural America.
First, agro-ecosystems and native husbandry respect and mimic nature by, as Jackson puts it, using the species that God put in the great prairie ecosystem. We ‘become native’ to this place, to borrow from author William Vitek, rather than imposing ourselves on it. The result is a healthier system (defined as ecological diversity and complexity in dynamic equilibrium). Thus, these approaches constitute the fulfillment of the biblical command of stewardship while celebrating the good that is intrinsic to nature as our tradition teaches us.
Secondly, this systems approach to farming favors family and small community. It is just the sort of human activity that nurtures the soul as much as the soil. Using our God-given reason to solve problems and heal the land is the very essence of human achievement. It is, simply, happiness, defined by Jack Kittredge as healthy family life, work satisfaction, leisure, friendships, “open land” and community strength, and similarly defined by Thomas Aquinas, in part, as communal human flourishing. More people working the land and all consumers being closer to the sources of their nourishment constitute a just use of God’s creation.
Thirdly, and admittedly least tangibly, this approach offers spiritual nourishment based on the practice of traditional virtues. Eco-farmers and their customers will live simpler lives, basing more of their consumption on what is local. They will develop closer alliances of solidarity within and among small communities. Oh and there is this: eco-farming will entail a degree of salvific (literally “saving”) suffering as we restore creation and renew our role within it. This is the very core of the gospel: sacrifice is redemptive. This is agriculture as sacrament.
Father Bud Grant is an Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he teaches courses such as Intro to the New Testament, Intro to Environmental Studies, Environmental Ethics and others. He’s the coordinator of the Environmental Studies program and advisor for St. Ambrose’s environmental club. He was also a planner and presenter at the symposium in October 2009 celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Paul II’s visit to Iowa.