Catholic Rural Life executive director Jim Ennis participated in a conference on family farming in the French countryside late this past month. The conference, which was held from February 21-22 in the French commune of Souvigny, was organized by Journees Paysannes, a Catholic organization committed to protecting and promoting family farms and rural communities. About 100 family farmers were in attendance.
The trip was part of CRL’s continuing effort to incorporate a number of different perspectives from the world of agriculture into the Faith, Food & the Environment project, an initiative that began with a national symposium in Minnesota in November 2014. CRL is holding focus groups throughout the US, and will also co-host an international gathering in Milan this summer, all in an effort to produce a series of resources that apply faith principles to challenges faced in contemporary agriculture.
Ennis, who was joined on the trip by Dr. Christopher Thompson, the academic dean of the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity and the secretary of CRL’s board of directors, said getting international input on the project is essential.
“It’s a resource that’s meant to serve the entire Church,” he said. “So we need to hear from leaders in food production and agriculture from around the world, not just the US.”
At the conference, Ennis gave an overview of the Faith, Food & the Environment project to those in attendance, while Dr. Thompson provided a compelling account of the connection between the theology of creation and contemporary farming. Ennis said the presentations were well received, and he was encouraged to find genuine interest in the Faith, Food & the Environment project from those in attendance.
“It was unanimous that this type of document would be helpful for farmers,” he said. “The resources produced will be a set of resources that’s very practical.”
But the point of the visit wasn’t merely to inform a new audience about the forthcoming resources–it was to solicit their input so that the resources would respond to their needs.
On this front, Ennis said the French farmers who attended the conference were more than willing to share. Break-out discussions and Q&A sessions following the CRL presentations gave attendees the opportunity to discuss the type of resources that might be helpful to family farmers in France.
Ennis says that one of the main points that emerged was the importance of keeping families in farming.
“There’s a long history in France of caring for the land and passing on the farm from one generation to another,” he said. “But families are now feeling intense pressure due to the globalization and industrialization of agriculture. They see young people leaving the rural communities and not returning. There’s also a lot of pressure on small and medium sized family farms to consolidate or sell.”
In spite of these economic challenges, the consensus was clear: family farming keeps an essential human element in agriculture, and those in attendance were committed to protecting and promoting this model.
“How can we continue to pass on the farm to the next generation?” asked Ennis rhetorically. “Those were the questions they were asking and wanted to include in the Faith, Food & the Environment project.”
Another common theme was the loss of a sense of vocation in agriculture. Conference attendees say this needs to be addressed in clear and explicit language in the final set of resources.
“There’s a lack of integration between faith and farming, that in turn has made it difficult for French people living in rural societies to pass on the Catholic faith to their children,” said Ennis. “The document we produce can help to explore how Catholics on the land can pass the faith on to the next generation, as it relates to agriculture.”
For Ennis, the trip re-emphaszied the need to focus on the human element of farming, such as faith and family. In addition to the two day conference, driving around the French countryside and visiting several farms also made this point clear.
“There’s a pressure to take culture out of agriculture in France. To dehumanize it,” Ennis said. “Yet I saw the very human side of it, the love of the land, the pride they take in their work. I saw the universalism of human nature and of families.”
“There’s a solidarity in this, but there’s also a void and a need for new catechesis on faith and farming. The Faith, Food & the Environment project will help fill that void.”