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A tough row to hoe: how agribusiness is taking the family out of farming. (Cover Story).

Visit with Dan and Annie Wasson on a late-August evening when the work is done on the 1,100 acres they farm. Sit on the porch with their family and look out over the lush green fields and rolling country lanes as the light fades and the summer air cools. You won't have to ask why they want to preserve this land and this way of life.

The corn grows high, soybean bushes sprout nary a weed, the Black Angus cattle look fed and fit. Children Kayla, 13, and Ross, 10, are loved and happy. Grandma Helen Gannon still has her health. And Annie's already done mowing the latest crop of hay.

The Wassons farm this bit of God's country near Valeria, Iowa, nearly smack dab in the middle of the state, nearly in the middle of the country, carrying on a family tradition that goes back to 1863.

"The kids are the fifth generation on this land," Annie points out, and Dan adds, "It's a great place to raise a family. Hopefully the kids will want to farm."

On the surface, it's a setting ready-made for a calendar.

But you don't have to hoe too deeply into the agricultural scene in the United States to dig up moral issues that touch not only farmers like the Wassons but everyone who eats.

* Farmers feel they aren't fairly compensated for the work they do. The annual per capita income for rural residents is $9,000 less than for those who live in metropolitan areas or towns greater than 20,000 people.

* While Americans buy inexpensive bags of frozen chicken breasts, farmers who raise the chickens are forced into contracts that leave them little profit, lots of risk, and few options to change their fate. Workers who process poultry tell of dangerous, unjust working conditions and a frenetic pace that rolls 90 carcasses per minute past their work stations, all for a wage of $6 an hour.

* Low prices for crops and livestock are forcing small farm operations out of business. Volume is the only way to make any profit. But there is a limit to the amount of land one farmer can work and the number of animals a farm family can care for.

* If they could buy more land, farm families could work larger plots of land to obtain the volume needed. But then they would need labor help, and workers are hard to come by because jobs in the cities and metro areas pay more on average than jobs in rural areas.

* Because rural residents are moving into the cities where the good-paying jobs are, rural communities are being depopulated with devastating effect: Populations are too small to sustain Main Street businesses; college-educated young people find no business for their skills or salaries much lower than city jobs; schools must be consolidated; there is a loss of neighborly fellowship and community spirit. Churches wither from dwindling numbers of parishioners and fewer resources both in dollars to maintain facilities and programs and in people to do the ministry; eventually parishes are merged or closed. One farmer called rural communities "dying repositories of the ... aged."

* Requirements for more volume due to low crop prices push farmers to plant their fields from fence post to fence post and to use more chemical fertilizer, insecticide, and weed killer. That adds to soil and herbicide runoff, depleting topsoils and adding to the deterioration of water quality. Factory-like farming of hogs results in huge ponds of hog waste that foul the air and threaten to pollute water reservoirs. Corporate-owned farms are now lobbying for government subsidies to build waste-holding tanks.

* Government subsidies to farmers seem to favor agribusiness corporations by keeping crop prices down. Instead of agricultural conglomerates paying farmers what their grain is worth, the companies pay a low set price and the government supports agribusinesses by paying off farmers with welfare-like subsidies. While farmers say they would rather do without government subsidies, for some--without getting higher prices for their food--the government checks are the only way the family farm can stay in business.

Cattle and government cash

Dan Wasson has watched much of the above happen before his own eyes in Jasper County, Iowa.

"Over the years it's been a good living," admits Dan, 39, "but it's not at that point right now." There used to be 120 sows on the farm, and the Wassons brought anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 hogs to market over a year's time. No more. Hog raising by huge corporate factory farms has dropped the price of hogs so low the Wassons and other small hog farmers couldn't make a profit, and they got out.

"That's the way it is with crops, too," he says. "There's less dollar profit per unit of output. If you don't have 1,200 to 1,500 acres, you don't have enough volume to make it."

Two things help Dan and Annie Wasson survive while others are forced out of farming.

The first is a herd of Black Angus cattle. Started back in 1930, the herd numbers some 250 head and has put the Wassons into a popular niche market. They sell the seed stock and fatten out for beef the cattle that don't sell for insemination purposes. Premium stock brings a premium price.

"The cattle are my biggest love," admits Annie, who got her degree in animal science from Iowa State University. "I always knew what I wanted to do. At ISU I learned so much about vaccination programs and marketing that we put to use today."

The other savior for the Wassons is more of a two-edged sword. "Our cash comes from the government," Dan says, and Annie adds, "to put it sadly."

Government emergency payments for corn and soybeans provide much-needed income for the Wassons, as they do for other farmers. But farmers say they wouldn't need the federal handouts if they could sell their grain on the market instead of through the current system.

"We'd rather do it the open-market way," Dan says.

His family's faith life has been affected, too, by the stress put on rural areas of the country. The Wassons used to belong to Sacred Heart Parish in Valeria. When it was closed by the Diocese of Davenport, they were forced to worship at Immaculate Conception in Colfax, eight miles away.

"Sacred Heart was just down the road for us," he says, "but what we really miss about it is the closeness of the small community. You felt like your parish was a family."

Part of God's plan

The way of life the Wassons and other family farmers seek to preserve is one the Catholic Church in this country has consistently championed.

Bishop Raymond L. Burke of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, who is president of the board of directors of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, stresses the need for the church to continue to support the family farm. Because all humanity depends upon the work of agriculture for food and fiber, Burke says in his annual message to NCRLC members, "the church has always taught that the care of the land, plants, and animals ought to be in the hands of God-fearing families who understand that God's creatures have been entrusted to them for the good of all their brothers and sisters."

Farming is not only a business but first and foremost stewardship, Burke adds. "The farm economy can never be developed solely according to the principles of maximum production and highest profit. Rather, the respectful care of the land, plants, and animals, in accord with God's plan, which is best carried out by families working together in local communities, must guide agricultural economic development."

The penchant for preserving family farms also comes from the perspective of fairness and the common good. Saving the family farm means preserving a middle class in society, according to Jon Bailey, director of rural policy programs for the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska.

As the vertical integration of supply chains gobble up small operators and empty out rural communities, research from across the country shows that communities end up with a few wealthy people, a majority of poor laborers, and virtually no middle class. Often the results are increased crime and a fractured family structure, Bailey notes.

With the loss of family farms and a middle class comes poverty. Of the 250 poorest counties in the nation, 243 are rural counties.

We're hurting out here

Scores of rural residents came to the Newman Center at Iowa State University in Ames this past August to raise their voices about farm concerns and to offer suggestions for how the Catholic Church can help bring about just solutions.

The meeting was the last of a series of listening sessions held in four regions of the country by a cadre of Catholic leadership organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Catholic Charities USA, and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. Similar sessions were held during 2001 in Delaware, Texas, and California.

A key purpose of the sessions was to gather information so the bishops of the United States might recommend changes in the food and agriculture policy of the country through lobbying and testimony in Congress and through bishops' statements and an anticipated pastoral letter. The pastoral would be intended to influence policy making and to encourage this nation's 63 million Catholics to be advocates for just farm policies, just working conditions for food processors, and safe, good food.

While the issues are complex, muddied by international trade agreements, globalization, the booming biotechnology field, and even internal conflicts between growers and the organizations that try to represent them, what farmers and rural residents said during the sessions might be paraphrased with simple words: We're hurting out here in the land where your food is raised and grown, and we need the power of Catholic voices and the power of the church to help us change the way things are going. Take a stand with us for what is just for all of us, for what's right for the land, for what's right for the future of our society.

A farmer-consumer reunion

Sister Miriam Brown, a Dominican nun from Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, was among those who went up to the microphone in Ames. She is executive director of the Churches' Center for Land and People, an ecumenical organization that advocates for agricultural issues in the farm-belt states of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. Raised on a farm herself, Brown eloquently voiced many of the concerns from a particularly reflective and spiritual perspective.

"Agriculture is not a peripheral issue to be laid aside as `rural' in the press of other concerns," Brown says. "Agriculture is at the cutting edge of the world's ethical, spiritual, and global questions of today and [the] future: questions of life, sustainability, health, food security, and quality in the world community.

"Agriculture" she continues, "is about international trade treaties controlled by corporate interests that destroy sustainable systems here and around the world; about industrialized methods of chemical use and factory farms that threaten people, soil, water, and air; about genetic manipulation that tampers with nature's coding; and about patents that tie people to seed companies forever.

"Agricultural issues are about changing the meaning of creation from sacred gift to economic resource, about reducing people's proud stewardship of the land to `competitive edge' and `efficiency.'"

Rural residents and their advocates offer a lengthy list of ideas for how Catholics and their church can make a difference in the lives of those who put food on our tables.

One answer, however, is for farmers to join together to demand change. Merle McGrane, from St. Boniface Parish in Ionia, Iowa, says stronger and more active rural life ministry at the parish level could help unite farmers to use their collective power.

"Can't you just see President Bush coming home and telling Laura, `I've got a few hundred thousand letters from Catholic farmers, and I'm going to have to start paying attention to those folks.'"

Nancy Wisdo was among the church officials listening at Ames. As director of the Office of Domestic Social Development for the USCCB, she'll be among those helping the bishops develop the conference's positions on farm issues. What common themes did she hear in Iowa and at other listening sessions around the country?

"You hear the words `farm crisis' from farmers," Wisdo says. "That's been pretty consistent. Clearly in their eyes it's a crisis.

"We've heard the need for collective bargaining, but I don't know how that fits with farm culture," which traditionally has had the image of go-it-alone individualism.

Foremost in her thinking, though, was a need for the nation's bishops to be better bridge builders between the masses of urban Catholics and the people in crisis who raise their food. "Where's the outrage from the consumers?" Wisdo asks. "Folks want cheap food, but it's the farmer who pays the price."

Bob Gronski, policy coordinator of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, heard the need for the voices of people of faith to be raised in both the city and on the farm. From the church officials who attended the Ames gathering, Gronski says he heard a summons for a partnership between farmers and consumers. "A religious conscience calls us to act for justice," he says, and he heard the cry for a greater ecumenical effort by people of various religious traditions to ensure farm policies that are both "socially just and economically sound."

Patrick Finan, rural life director for the Diocese of Des Moines, thinks the place to start is communication. When rural people talk about their concerns, they use terms like "sustainable agriculture," "vertical integration," CRP, and GMOs that nonfarmers don't understand.

* Sustainable agriculture is economically viable, environmentally sound, socially just and humane, and meets the needs of farmers, consumers, workers, and communities.

* Vertical integration refers to the control of all of the processes in the production and sale of goods and services. Through vertical integration, agribusinesses are able to control feed and livestock prices, salaries of workers in processing plants, and prices at the grocery.

* In a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the federal government encourages growers to withhold farmable land from planting by paying them a fee not to raise a crop on that land. The purpose is both to allow soil to replenish needed nutrients and to lessen overproduction.

* In the reproduction of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), the genetic makeup of plants and animals is altered to produce specific results, for example weed-resistance or drought-hardiness. Farmers and others have expressed concern about the as yet unknown results of ingesting food produced from GMO plants and animals. Farmers specifically oppose so-called "terminator seeds" whose genetic makeup doesn't allow for reproduction, forcing farmers to always buy new seed instead of saving seed from one season's crop to plant the next.

"An outsider would think we're speaking a foreign language," says Finan. "We need to make consumers understand what we're talking about."

It isn't uncommon for urban residents to be critical of farmers who are "paid for not growing crops," Finan points out. "We need to share the evidence about why we let some fields lie fallow some years, and we need to share why the land is so precious to us."

Who's on the Wheaties box?

What can Catholics do? Well, would you mind paying four cents more for a box of Wheaties? Gary Guthrie doesn't think so.

A member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish at the Newman Center in Ames, Guthrie made the case that doubling the farmer's profit from each box of cereal--four cents--would mean little to American consumers but would mean a great deal to wheat farmers.

Pointing to a box of Wheaties with golfer Tiger Woods on its cover, Guthrie noted that Woods is paid 10 cents per box for allowing his image to be used to promote the cereal. "My goal," Guthrie says, "is to put the face of the farmer back on the Wheaties box."

Guthrie is among many who have become involved in community-supported agriculture organizations. Starting with just four families four years ago, he now has 40 families to whom he supplies 30 varieties of fresh vegetables from his two-acre plot just south of U.S. 30 near Aveda, Iowa.

Most of the families are his fellow parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas. Like those around the country who have connected with individual farmers or farm coop groups, Guthrie's buyers like the quality of the food, the freshness, and the fact that they are putting money back into the local economy rather than the profits of a faraway corporation. They like the fact they can trust this farmer to use methods that preserve the land and water and air quality rather than pollute.

"There's something about knowing where your food comes from that makes a connection deep inside people," Guthrie says. "To me, it's my ministry, and the people who support me see themselves as part of that ministry. Together we're developing an interconnectedness in our lives. And it's a spiritual connection. A farmer knows he can't control his life. We depend on weather, especially in unirrigated fields. We harvest whatever comes from God, and whatever comes from God is good."

Among the recommendations voiced at Ames was that the U.S. bishops encourage parishes to develop programs to connect masses of parishioners with farmers and farm co-ops through community-supported agriculture.

Eating is a moral act

Dale Hennen, rural life director for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has been part of successful efforts to link groups of farmers with parishes in the suburban Twin Cities. As encouraging as these efforts are, the food that makes its way from farm to table through community-supported agriculture groups is admittedly a drop in the bucket compared with the volume of food purchased at supermarket chains across the country.

Hennen says the big-picture goal is getting the bulk of Catholics who live in cities to see that eating is a moral act, and that they can help change the systems that are destroying the family farm foundation of the United States, destroying rural communities and parishes, harming the environment, and scaring people about the safety of the food they are eating.

"How to organize the Catholic masses to make a difference, that's the trick," Hennen says. "It's easy to put things on paper but difficult to make them happen. That's where the rub comes, especially when rural life ministry has limited resources in staffs and money as well."

Building coalitions among farm groups and lobbying on the moral side of farm policy issues are groups such as Sister Miriam Brown's in Wisconsin. In Minnesota, the School Sisters of Notre Dame offer education on rural issues and practical advice for eating and living in solidarity with farm families through the SSND Center for Earth Spirituality and Rural Ministry in Mankato, Minnesota.

The National Catholic Rural Life Conference has been working for 78 years at education and advocacy on behalf of those who raise the world's food.

Its leaders over the years have advised both local dioceses and the U.S. bishops on farm issues and more recently have been a consultant to the Vatican on globalization and rural life. Its Web site, www.ncrlc.com, is a gold mine of resources for individuals, groups, and parishes.

Holy Cross Brother David Andrews, the rural life conference's executive director, doesn't take a political agenda approach when he and his colleagues recommend policy or promote principles. His comments line up directly with the principles the universal church proclaims in its Catholic social teaching:

* All people have human rights and responsibilities;

* The needs of the poor and vulnerable are priorities;

* Work has dignity and so do workers, and work is more than making a living but a form of participating in God's creation;

* Humans find a common ground in family and community participation;

* We who are to love our neighbors can find solidarity with everyone on the planet;

* We are to be stewards of God's creation.

"We believe in the dignity of the human person," Andrews says, "that all of creation is designed to be treated with care. For us that means fair farm prices and a way of looking at the environment that nurtures natural resources. We believe that dignity means we support revitalizing rural areas and reclaiming Main Street.

"We believe that local communities have a right to shape their own future, and that those who walk the land know it better than anyone."

He says that today our country's agricultural policies are being shaped by economic values when they should be shaped by human values.

"What we at the National Catholic Rural Life Conference are promoting are communities, not homogeneity," Andrews says. "We stand with people who do not want rural America to be given away to the technocrats, with people who do not want rural America to be depopulated, with people who do not want a few big corporations to get all the wealth. This is what shapes our vision." (See also Andrews' interview on pages 20 to 23.)

A blessing and not a curse

Possible action by individual Catholics and the potential for organized, group actions that harness the massed influence of Catholics and the institutional church give hope to farmers like Iowan Gary Guthrie, who talks reverently about the "satisfaction of feeding people."

Catholics taking action on behalf of farmers also would give hope to Michele Leiting that once again the women's group at St. John's Parish in Arcadia, Iowa would have time for coffee and rolls regularly so they could "neighbor," as she puts it, and support one another so they wouldn't feel so helplessly caught in the system.

Catholics joining partnerships with rural residents would help George Naylor of Iowa Citizens for Community Involvement better realize his dream that the "abundance in our fields should be a blessing and not a curse."

Iowa farmer Wayne Demmer expresses the despair that many rural people feel, using biblical images in calling for help to stop the corporate takeover of farms and to get fair prices for the food they grow. "As a Catholic I know Jesus fought for justice," Demmer says. "It's time for the Catholic Church and you bishops to stand up for justice for farmers. The fruits of our labors are not going to the farmers--rather they are going to the moneychangers."

For information on the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill, visit the SALT OF THE EARTH Web site, salt.claretianpubs.org/washweek/ 2002/01/is0201.html.

RELATED ARTICLE: 10 ways you can help support the family farm.

What can urban and sub-urban Catholics do to support family farmers? Here's a quick list suggested by farmers themselves, by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and by rural education institutions:

1. At mealtimes, reflect on your eating habits, your attitudes toward wasting food and overeating.

2. When planning meals, include foods that are in season in your region, which supports local farmers and forgoes the need for costly shipping. Use locally produced foods that are available year-round, including eggs, meal dairy, and dry processed foods such as flour and pasta.

3. Pay reverence to God as the source of food and express gratitude to all those who helped bring the food to the table--farmers, ranchers, processors, truckers, cooks, and others.

4. Learn about food production and make value judgments when buying food. Consider if the people raising the food and processing the food are being justly compensated for their labor; how the method of producing, processing, and distributing the food impacts rural communities; and if producers are being good stewards of land, animals, air, and water.

5. Encourage labeling that identifies where food is from and who produced it.

6. Buy locally grown and organic food at farmers' markets and roadside stands. Doing so allows a greater percentage of the revenue from food sales to go directly to those who grow it. It also has secondary benefits: connecting city folks with growers, increasing trust about the safety of food and putting fun into shopping. Most growers happily share about their farming methods, how to tell when produce is ripe, and anything else you ask about their work or their lives.

7. Join a CSA--a community-supported agriculture group--that brings together farmers, community members, and the land in a relationship of mutual support based on an annual commitment to one another. While details vary, most CSA farms provide a weekly delivery of organically grown produce to consumers during the growing season. Consumers in turn pay a subscription fee or buy shares to become members of the community that supports the farm. Some CSAs require members to help with planting, care, or harvesting. While sharing in the rewards of growing, members share in the risks as well. Find a CSA near you at www.csacenter.org.

8. For parish events, serve food from local sustainable farmers.

9. Encourage legislators to provide rural areas with the same kind of tax and business incentives that encourage business development and repopulation in cities. Support metropolitan growth policies that limit the loss of good farmland and federal subsidies for farmers who follow conservation practices.

10. Join with conservation-minded rural residents by reducing use of herbicides on lawns and in gardens. Runoff of chemicals pollutes urban and suburban lakes and streams by enhancing the growth of algae, which decreases the oxygen levels in our waters, harming fish and wildlife production.

--Bob Zyskowski

RELATED ARTICLE: a culture worth saving.

Where did farm subsidies come from?

Farm subsidies came about when the number of farmers was still large and public policy questioned why urban workers were provided a minimum wage in factories while farmers' share of the food dollar declined. A concept of parity was developed that would ensure through government supports a fairer share of the food dollar. Policy later moved away from the concept of parity toward subsidy based upon production, which meant that the biggest farms got the biggest subsidies.

Why is the culture of the family farm worth protecting from market extinction?

This culture values honesty, hard work, self-reliance, personal integrity, family and community unity, care for creation, and spirituality tied to nature's rhythms.

Wendell Berry once said that the crisis in agriculture is not an economic crisis but a cultural crisis, and as a cultural crisis it is a crisis of character. What a family farm culture provides is a set of values that depends on virtues like trust, integrity, and ecological care.

--National Catholic Rural Life Conference

RELATED ARTICLE: rural Catholics speak up.

What do rural Catholics think would help their situation? Here's a list of ideas voiced at a listening session in Ames, Iowa:

* Limit federal farm subsidies to $100,000 per farm. Target subsidies to small and medium farms only.

* Educate priests about rural issues and encourage preachers to work agricultural justice into their homilies.

* Help farmers organize for collective bargaining purposes.

* Create government policies that encourage beginning farmers.

* Have dioceses hire good rural life directors and give them a decent budget.

* Enforce existing antitrust laws to end monopolies.

* Promote fair trade, not free trade.

* Work for a just wage for both farmers and food processor workers.

* Ban packer ownership of farms.

* Lobby the government on behalf of farmers.

* Realize how vertical integration in the food system is destroying competition.

* Remind urban Catholics that social justice is owed not only to urban workers but to farmworkers as well.

--Bob Zyskowski

BOB ZYSKOWSKI is associate publisher of The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
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Author:Zyskowski, Bob
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Date:Mar 1, 2002
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