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Churches, Iowa's biggest landowners, get involved.

DES MOINES, Iowa - For more than a century, tall church spires have stood sentinel amid vast, tasseled acres of Iowa corn.

Only this year was it revealed that the churches and their related organizations constitute Iowa's biggest landowner That revelation came in "Church Farmland Ownership in Iowa," a report of the Church Land Project. The project is a joint effort of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and PrairieFire Rural Action, which contend that churches have a singular opportunity to use their land responsibly, as a teaching resource and a gift to the broader rural community.

That may mean that one church avoids chemically intensive farming in favor of sustainable agriculture practices or that another church sells its bequest of land to a beginning farmer at a discount from top market price.

The NCRLC and PrairieFire invented the Church Land Project in the mid-1980s. The land-ownership report explains why: "The amount and use of churchowned farmland has significance far beyond the financial benefits that might accrue to its owners. Most U.S. church bodies have ... taken strong policy positions in support of family-farm agriculture and rural communities; many have policies related to land distribution and control. How U.S. churches use, sell or rent farmland they own is thereby a matter of both internal and public accountability."

Since 1990, Julia Kleinschmit has directed the project, working part time in the NCRLC office and part time in PrairieFire's office. PrairieFire is a non-profit organization committed to revitalizing family-farm agriculture and rural communities.

Kleinschmit, 24, who grew up on a Nebraska farm where her parents and grandparents practiced sustainable agriculture for decades, spends plenty of time on the road, consulting with seven dioceses, judicatories and religious orders that are project partners in demonstrating responsible uses of church land.

Three of the seven partners are religious communities that work their land: the Trappistine women of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, Dubuque, Iowa; the Trappist men of Our Lady of New Melleray Abbey, Peosta, Iowa; and the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wis.

The Church Land Project works with these communities as models, transforming their farming methods to assure sustainable agriculture.

The four other partners in the Church Land Project are the Omaha, Neb., archdiocese; the Sioux Falls, S.D., and Sioux City, Iowa, dioceses; and the United Church of Christ, Iowa Conference.

Working with those four partners, the project promotes other types of land stewardship, such as facilitating land transfers between retired and beginning farmers or renting only to farmers who use low-chemical methods.

Kleinschmit recalled one of the first meetings she attended as project director. "I was really having trouble with this one crotchety priest," she said. Another priest intervened to ask, "Ron, if you suddenly had 10,000 acres of farmland given to you, would you sell it to a young person or to National Farms [a farming corporation] for $100 more an acre?"

The crotchety priest answered, "National Farms, of course."

Kleinschmit recalled, "I was so appalled, I couldn't say anything. But these other 11 priests jumped on him and said, |You just cut your throat. In 10, 20, 30 years, you will not have a parish. First the school will go, then the church, then the parish, because you won't have any people.'"

A real-life instance of such a choice, it appears, involved the United Methodist Conference of Iowa, which since the 1930s had owned 17 farms covering 3,941 acres. Kleinschmit said project personnel began working with the conference as it explored options: Should one parcel become a model of a sustainable agriculture farm? Should the conference sell? If so, should it sell to a beginning farmer at less than top market value? Should conservation restrictions be imposed on a buyer or tenant?

In the end, it appears, the dollar spoke louder, said Kleinschmit. "They sold the land for the highest price they could get." She called that an example of "bad stewardship" and a loss of "great opportunity" by a church.

In contrast, Church land Project partners try to model responsible land stewardship, she said.

One opportunity for churches occurs because they can receive land gifts without incurring taxes, then sell to a beginning farmer. Kleinschmit said many retired farmers who do not have children able or willing to get into agriculture prefer this option to saddling their children with hefty inheritance taxes.

We think cburches are in a really good spot" to transfer land this way, she said, calling it "a wonderful service, very much in keeping with their spiritual call."
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Title Annotation:National Catholic Rural Life Conference
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 5, 1993
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