Against the ills of modern industrial life, the Church is called to provide a new vision for life, one rooted in the Good of Creation, Community, and Cultivation.
Rural America’s problems are often waved off in comparison to urban needs and urgencies. But challenges in the countryside are ominously similar as some big industrial cities: shrinking population bases, declining incomes, empty storefronts, abandoned school districts, and shattered communities.
Throughout our 90-year history, CRL has served as the voice of the Church in rural America and remains ready to carry a message of hope to those who still strive for a strong and vibrant countryside. Using the language of landscape, community and spirituality, CRL demonstrates that the problems of rural America are the problems of a modern society that only cares to make more money rather than seeks sufficient ways to live.
When Social Bonds are Loosened
The steady decline in the number of proprietary family farms across the United States is well publicized and recognized. Although the number of small-scale farms (annual sales less than $1,000) has been increasing, there is a loss of mid-scale farms that use to make a decent living and raise a family solely on their own working land production. Now it takes family members working off the farm to make a go of it. With the average age of farmers approaching 60 years, planning for the future of the American farm – the future of our food supply – should be a top priority.
Within the agricultural sector, there are differing views on what the future of farming should look like. The opinions of individuals are shaped by their own situations. Those whose farming income represents just a portion of their total income will lean towards smaller, less intensive farms. Those whose sole income depends on their farm operation will argue that only large, more intensive farm operations are viable.
The possibility of a son or daughter joining the farm business tends to influence one’s perspective as well. So do level of debt, type of commodity production and method of marketing. With all of these differing viewpoints, discussions on the topic of long-term sustainability of farming can turn into a never-ending exchange of opinions, all of them valid in their own light and yet leading to opposing public policies. How do we as a nation reach consensus when the bonds of solidarity and the voice of the common good have grown weak and feeble?
Renewing Rural Society
Throughout American history, our home-grown intellectuals — Jefferson, Thoreau, Emerson — wrote about the national importance of a healthy rural society. We hear the same refrains in the writings of Wendell Berry. For them, the urban world was more commotion and excess than studious reflection and temperance. Only in the countryside could life take on a truly human meaning — a life in which the best qualities of humankind could flourish.
The major philosophical difference underlying rural and urban living is the relationship of people with nature, or as we might prefer to say, our interaction with Creation. If nature is the home of human beings, then we must prudently care for this wondrous creation in necessary regard for our daily livelihood and generational responsibilities. Give us this day our daily bread, we pray. But future material production also requires us to conserve and preserve the soil, fresh waters, and diversified plant and animal life. This principle seems less relevant in an urban setting, where production can often be pressed to whatever level the market will bear.
In other words, the cosmopolitan world places a premium on limitless production and consumption. Along with that comes the compulsion to live beyond our means and to consume for consumption’s sake. This is not to say all is respected and safely guarded in rural America. Rural youth are readily drawn to metropolitan areas because that is where the opportunities are: the jobs, the larger income, the social amenities. For those who try to stay, they must face the dwindling number of farms and farm families. Technology helped the land become intensely productive, but the farming equipment became large enough for one farm operator to manage thousands of acres. The equilibrium between people and land no longer seems a matter of concern.
Living in Equilibrium with Creation
But change is afoot. In recent years, dual concerns for the fate of rural communities and the sustainability of the environment have again become pressing issues. There is a renewed interest in where our food comes from and how it is produced. For those who give heed, it remains painfully evident that the national economy misuses both rural people and rural resources for short-term gains. Not only does this shortsightedness damage rural areas, it neglects the most worthy purposes to which people might otherwise aspire.
If rural dwellers are to have real communities, then the equilibrium with nature, with Creation, must be re-established. People must care intimately for one another and cherish the land they inhabit. They must also care more closely for the ways they know one another, the rituals of their daily lives, their knowledge of the local environment.
In the view of CRL, the measure of production must be how well it can be sustained over time. Sustainable production is necessary for establishing and nurturing the real community—the common cultural ground of land-based places. Otherwise, the national economy will continue to degrade rural society and the natural environment.
A Future for All
It is clear to us that differentiated policies are needed to address the needs of all sizes of farms. Agriculture does not lend itself to a “one size fits all” solution. America’s farm sector continues to try to adapt to changing circumstances and pressures, and it continues to lose many farm families along the way. If this trend is allowed to continue, rural America may very well lose its unique landscape in the foreseeable future and the country will be poorer for it.
If our nation is serious about maintaining an agricultural sector and food production base throughout rural America, we need to develop a plan for the future of farming. The plan needs to acknowledge the different types of farming that have served consumers so well over the years, and incorporate ways to address their differing needs.