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Monks, sisters cultivate farming tradition: orders combine old roots and new methods.

Orders combine old roots and new methods

DUBUQUE and PEOSTA, Iowa - Less than six years ago, pastures at Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey looked like golf courses. Today the manicure is gone. Stocker steers chew up grasses, perhaps nine varieties, that grow at random in one pasture. Then they move to the next pasture to do the same.

Nor are corn and soybean fields as pristine as once they were. Weeds sprout between rows, evidence that chemicals are being used sparingly and only directly on crops. The weeds mark a commitment to sustainable agriculture begun three years ago by the Cistercian - or Trappistine - nuns who farm the land.

Cornfields and beanfields are similarly weedy just a 20-minute drive away at Our Lady of New Melleray Abbey near Peosta. There, nitrogen use has been halved in three years, saving the Trappist monks $9,000 to $12,000 annually.

The monks own more than 3,000 acres: 1,500 planted in corn and beans; 1,500 in hay. They too are committed to sustainable agriculture, moving deliberately toward their goal of using only sustainable methods by the year 2002. Br. Placid Zilka is experimenting with an organic section, increasing its acreage each year.

For both communities, the move toward sustainable agriculture grows out of a spirituality of stewardship, a plan to keep the land productive for Cistercians living on it 100 years from now.

The Trappists have been farming New Melleray for 144 years, and they remain the only U.S. Cistercians whose livelihood depends on farming. Decades ago, the men of New Melleray were leaders in chemical farming, said Fr. Brendan Freeman, abbot. "That was the way to go in the '50s, and we didn't see the consequences of it. Now, well be one of the first to get out of it in this area. One of the major goals is to be chemically free in 10 years."

"Or mostly chemically free, but to reserve chemicals as a tool if you need them?" asked Julia Kleinschmit, Church Land Project director who works on planning committees at both abbeys.

Freeman said he hoped for total weaning from chemicals. An adviser told him that the farm could become organic through crop rotation and that the market was growing for organic crops. Trappistine Sr. Sherry Pech, farm manager at Mississippi, said some central Iowa farmers consolidated their organic crops to send 20 tons of food-grade soybeans to Japan. "They got 30 percent more than if they'd sold it in the local market," she said.

Now, monks and nuns share with their neighbors the pitfalls of farming. "We know what it's like to get lousy prices," Pech said. Br. Kevin Knox, farm manager at New Melleray, said "the chemical grain operation has become less and less profitable for us. The market costs have remained stable while input costs have gone up - and labor. We're hiring more labor than we used to." The community today has about 40 monks, compared with 140 in the 1960s. Their average age today is 66.

Farming expenses have been partially offset by an increase in productivity" - an effect primarily of hybrid seeds that yield 160 to 170 bushels of corn on each acre, compared with 115 bushels 15 years ago, Knox said.

That is not enough for many area farmers who average $6,000 a year if they have no outside job, Pech said. "How can a farmer with a family to support live on $6,000 a year?"

The Cistercians at both abbeys are experimenting with bow things might change. They are modeling for their neighbor farmers that "in most cases it is more productive to treat your land well," Kleinschmit said.

The Trappistine farmers at Mississippi began their managed grazing three years ago. But for almost 20 years, starting soon after the abbey was founded in 1964, New Melleray's Br. Zilka managed the Trappistine farm, rebuilding depleted soils with chemicals, then diminishing chemical use, rotating crops and planting in strips and contours.

The sisters now grow and market stocker steers, corn, soybeans and hay. Vegetarians themselves, they produce in gardens and orchards much of what they eat. This summer they tended a neighbor's goat herd, us" the goats to mow a piece of their land.

The nuns! progress toward sustainable agriculture is more advanced than the monks', Kleinschmit said. That is because they live less land - about 150 of their 550 acres are tillable - and they are no primarily dependent on the land to support them. Their primary income comes from making Trappistine creamy caramels, a line of candy that includes several varieties of caramels and mints.

But the sisters want the farm to become more productive, and the Holistic Resource Management Group that advises them has suggested that the farm should bring in greater income, enabling the sisters not to depend solely on their candy. Pete Allen of the management group is a member of the sisters' farm team, along with Pech, two other sisters, Kleinschmit, Zilka and neighbor farmers Marty and Joan Vaske. They develop recommendations for the farm and present them to the community.

The community has decided, for instance, that buying a planter and combine would be too costly for the little time they would be used. Instead, the nuns will hire the work out and thereby model cooperation with their neighbors. More and more, the community is discussing the possibility, even the probability, of moving toward total freedom from chemicals. The biggest obstacle is that organic farming requires more labor than chemical farming.

The community today is unusually young. Sisters are between 32 and 80 years old, averaging 49. But someday, Pech said, the nuns will be older and less able to work the land; already each sister in the 25-member community has several jobs, and workers are hired for some farm projects. Nevertheless, said Pech, the decision-making process allows the Trappistines to change focus as needs change.

"Maybe down the road, we would choose not to do anything with the farm. The rest of our life would continue, and there would still be that sense of responsibility for our land. ... We've been given such a beautiful location. There's a sense of knowing we're called to be good stewards. ... There could be a point in time where we might look at having a beginning farmer come in and set up a dairy operation or whatever. There's always another possibility."

The monks too are considering the possibility of eventually enabling a beginning farmer to work some of the land for a share rent. They are considering whether to diversify crops or to raise cattle, as they once did.

The biggest decision before them now is whether to hire a farm manager, someone from outside the community who would work with them to implement sustainable agriculture. The question is a matter of spirituality as well as practicality, Freeman said. The monks are becoming too few and too old to provide enough workers for sustainable farming. Yet "ne of our ideals is to work by the labor of our hands," he said. "To hire an outside manager is quite a step for us philosophically."

The monks, like their Trappistine sisters, credit Zilka with spurring them toward sustainable and organic farming. But Zilka "feels he's too old - he's in his mid-60s - to get into management," said Knox, the farm manager, who would like to get out of it. "I don't have the skills or drive to carry this through,"he said.

Freeman said, "It's not a great time for us to be making a major change with the farm. But I think it's an act of faith."

The monks have incorporated their commitment to sustainable agriculture into their community vision statement. They have established annual goals toward their 10-year plan. For instance, in 1992 they were to consider buying a new planter, They bought one. They were to improve tree planting, so they added to the orchard. Reaching past their goals, they put in 40 acres of grass borders; they stopped using insecticides on 200 acres, as anticipated; and they doubled their acreage farmed with sustainable methods.

"God is not going to leave us in the lurch," said Fr. Joseph Bauwens, recalling that in the 1930s, the monks were thinking of closing New Melleray because it had only 17 monks. Monasteries "wax and they wane. If we were to sell our land, what would we do if we grew again to 140 monks?" The land also offers a buffer against development, assuring the privacy necessary to a monastic life-style, Knox said. The commitment to sustainable agriculture has raised the monastic community's consciousness and helped unify it, Bauwens said.

"The model is not just agricultural but how you behave, how you act as a human being in a moment of crisis when things may look a little cloudy or dark," he said. "We're still a model of that."

Kleinschmit contends that "at least on their own land, churches need to reclaim that role as co-creator with God and to promote that to their followers or members and to stand as a strong witness to what they believe."

Freeman and Pech recalled that Cistercians have lived on and from the land as leaders in agriculture since the Middle Ages. Bauwens called their sense of stewardship "something spiritual. It's a grace. It's a graced reality."
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Title Annotation:Trappist New Melleray Abbey; Our Lady of Mississippi Abbey
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 5, 1993
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