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Brother tends, teaches on Ohio farmlands.

Precious Blood Br. Nick Renner works to save Ohio's farmland for future generations. Drawing upon years of farming experience with innovative techniques, he spreads the word about practicing land and water conservation. He applies his love of farming to advise, educate and manage farmers on how to reduce topsoil erosion and runoff into lakes and freshwater bodies.

Born in Landeck, Ohio, Renner grew up on a family farm, where he and his brothers helped grow crops like corn, soybeans and oats. In 1964, Renner joined the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, an order that, like Renner, has roots in Ohio farming. When its priests first came to the rural areas of Ohio's Mercer County they farmed crops such as potatoes in order to support themselves financially.

Renner's order assigned him to work within its farming community He worked on the farm of St. Charles, the central house for the Cincinnati province, located in Carthagena, Ohio. The farm includes 1,100 acres of tillable land and 200 acres of hardwood trees. For the next 43 years, Renner farmed the land, harvesting corn, soybeans and other crops.

During his farming tenure, Renner became aware of topsoil loss caused by soil erosion. He noticed that tilling left the soil vulnerable to water and wind erosion, which then stripped away the tilled land's topsoil.

In addition, tilling damaged the health of the soil that remained. "The water doesn't infiltrate into the soils as well because we're getting the compaction from heavy machinery" he said.

Renner and his farming partner, Precious Blood Br. Don Fisher, started covering the fields with alfalfa hay, creating a type of lawn to protect the topsoil from water and wind erosion. In 1975, they began experimenting with no-till practices. Renner said that no-till practices leave the soil undisturbed, maintaining the soil's nutrients and organic level, which leads to more plentiful future harvests. Eventually, they converted almost 100 percent to no-tilling, which has been maintained for the last 20 years. (Fisher died in 2008.)

About six years ago. Renner started adopting cover crop practices. Covering the soil with a dormant season crop protects it from erosion during the winter season, and also builds up the organic levels within the soil.

Renner described the advantages of both no-till and cover crops for farmers that grow crops like corn and soybeans. "First of all, the yields will be just as good or better after three to five years of doing it," he said. "It will cut back on your fertilizer bill. It will make you more money, with less hours of work. I don't see erosion on our farms like I do with our neighbors'."

The order's farm has contributed to religious life in many ways, according to Fr Larry Hemmelgarn, provincial director of the Cincinnati Province of Missionaries of the Precious Blood.

"In the past, the farm literally helped support St. Charles, when it was a seminary The fields, orchards and gardens provided food for the Hemmelgarn told NCR.

"Over the years we have grown in our appreciation of the reality that the land and everything it gives us is a part of the rhythm of God's creation and needs to be valued, cherished and respected so that it can provide healthy sustenance for future generations," he said in an email.

After successfully applying no-till and cover crop practices within his farming community, Renner used his conservation knowledge to help the surrounding area. Catholic Rural Life, an organization of laity and religious dedicated to serving the rural church, people and their communities, reported about Renner's efforts in its summer 2013 magazine: "When a nearby lake [Grand Lake Saint Marys] developed toxic algae blooms, he was also employed by the Mercer County extension office as an independent consultant to work with farmers in the watershed to adopt notill and cover crop practices, as well as to teach them proper manure management."

Though Renner retired from hands-on farming in 2006, he remains involved with the order's land, its 1.100 acres rented out to 11 neighboring farmers, under contracts that they employ no-till and cover crops. Renner manages the contracts that govern the rentals. He also manages the order's 200 acres of hardwood trees.

"We still want to be good stewards of the property we hold, and good neighbors to the farmers in our area," Hemmelgarn said. 'Anyone who visits St. Charles sees that it sits in the middle of farm fields. Seeds being planted, coming up in the spring, thriving in the summer then growing toward harvest--are such a visible symbol of God's goodness and the seasons of life."

Renner earned the 2013 Edwin V. O'Hara Advocacy Award from Catholic Rural Life. Named for the archbishop who founded the organization in 1923, the award recognizes an advocate in rural communities on behalf of food and agriculture concerns, care of creation, and rural ministry and outreach, according to executive director James Ennis.

"There are water contamination issues in the central valley of California, water contamination issues in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio," Ennis said. "We thought this would be a great spotlight to raise up an advocate on behalf of care of God's creation. But also, he's not just telling people but he's showing how it can be done."

Ennis said that what's important about Renner's witness is that he works with farmers, and doesn't condemn or alienate them.

"He speaks the language of farmers and understands their challenges and their constraints, and does a compelling job in showing how they can implement cover cropping and other agricultural practices to reduce erosion, to improve the nutrients in the soil so they don't use as much manure. A lot of manure runoff into the rivers and lakes is what causes too many nitrates and phosphates in the water," Ennis said. "He's not speaking as an outsider--he's speaking as an insider working within the agricultural community."

Said Renner, "We want to keep the lake waters clean. Water from the fields goes into the lakes. I want that clean for all of us to play in, and to have fresh waters for everything."

Renner also serves as a part-time private consultant for the Ohio State University He consults with farmers on cover crops and conservation and conducts experimental projects on conversation within his order's farmland. In addition, he serves part time as a pastoral associate for St. Henry Cluster Parishes in St. Henry Ohio.

Going forward, Renner emphasizes the importance of learning soil biology "Let's learn how the earth works first, and then we'll learn to work with the earth, instead of knowing nothing or very little about the earth, and then trying to do it our way," he said.

Caption: Precious Blood Br. Nick Renner: "Let's learn how the earth works first, and then we'll learn to work with the earth."
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Title Annotation:Nick Renner
Author:Forgey, Mick
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1U3OH
Date:Sep 26, 2014
Words:1135
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