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Farmers of Faith

11/1/2014

Dave Borowski

Jesse Straight, a member of Father Herman J. Veger Council 5561 in Warrenton, Va., feeds grain to his pastured chickens. (photo by Greg Gibson Photography)

Whiffletree Farm lies on 82 acres of rolling countryside outside of Warrenton, Va., just 50 miles west of Washington, D.C. The farmhouse where Jesse Straight and his family live sits on a hill surrounded by green fields that are populated by pastured chickens and turkeys, grass-fed cattle, and free-foraging pigs. Straight, 32, wakes up before dawn each day and is out the door by 6 a.m.

“Being a farmer is special because this is your office,” he said with a smile in September as he looked out over his herd grazing in the morning sunlight. “I spend the day making animals happy.”

Straight, a member of Father Herman J. Veger Council 5561 in Warrenton, has been farming this land since 2012 and abides by a simple yet profoundly Catholic principle: “If you pay close attention to how God created nature, then everything around you starts to flourish — land, animals, farmers, people who eat your food, and the community at large.”

Straight came to farming out of a concern for people who consume the products of the land. His parents bought the farm several years ago, and he and his wife, Liz, both converts to Catholicism, own and live in a small house on the property with their five young children. He loves what he does.

“I enjoy physical and manual work,” said Straight. “And I enjoy how the work flows together with family and parish life. This is my vision of the good life.”

While the Straights are new to farming and their farm is small, they are not so unlike multigenerational farming families such as the Ankleys in Imlay City, Mich., and the Kinderknechts in Park, Kan. These Catholic homesteads — and many like them — share a common vision of faith and stewardship.

STEWARDS OF GOD’S BOUNTY

The Bible is rich with stories about farming and the covenant between God and farmers. One psalm praises God as the creator of all things, including the bounty of the land: “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth” (Ps 104:14).

This covenant, of course, still exists today. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2003 document Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers, and Farmworkers states, “Food sustains life itself; it is not just another product. Providing food for all is a Gospel imperative, not just another policy choice.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 96 percent of the more than 2 million farms in the United States are considered “family-owned” — defined as “any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation.” James F. Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, further estimates that approximately 350,000 U.S. farms are operated by Catholic families.

A national organization founded in 1923 and based today in St. Paul, Minn., Catholic Rural Life has 2,200 member leaders who reach out to some 10 million rural Catholics, including farmers, in nearly every U.S. state.

Ennis laments the industrialization of farming, noting that large commercial farms often have a negative societal and environmental impact.

“Small farmers act as stewards of the land who are out to pass it on to the next generation,” said Ennis.

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service, the number of farms has dropped from more than 5.3 million in 1950 to 2.2 million in 2012, but the average farm size has been steadily increasing since the 1930s.

At 82 acres, Whiffletree Farm is considered small. The Straight family raises approximately 30 beef cattle, 200 pigs, 500 turkeys and 10,000 broiler chickens annually, and also pastures hens that produce about 360 dozen eggs a week. The family sells its bounty to local groceries, restaurants and consumers, and runs a farm store on its property that helps other local farmers sell lamb, salmon, honey, fruits and vegetables.

Straight’s philosophy about farming has been influenced by two popular farmers, writers and social activists: Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin. He first was attracted to Berry’s vision of the interconnectedness of life, blossoming from the home and fostering healthy local communities.

Salatin then provided the nuts and bolts to put this vision into practice: Raise animals free of harmful chemicals and move them from one fresh pasture to another, rather than cramming them into centralized feeding areas and propping them up with antibiotics.

As a Catholic, Straight believes that farmers like him have to do a better job of explaining the difference between what he calls “virtuous farming” and the food they produce and common practices of large corporate farms. He would also like to see the Church do more to discuss the virtues of stewardship with parishioners.

“My hope is that more and more people will see the good of this kind of farming,” he said.

There are, of course, challenges to virtuous farming. For one thing, it’s more expensive, making it even harder to compete. For Straight, however, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties.

“When you do things within God’s design,” he said, “things spiral upward: Healthy land and animals produce healthy food, which makes for healthy people and communities.”

MULTIGENERATIONAL CATHOLIC FARMERS

While the Straights are new to farming, many other Catholic families have been in the agricultural business for generations.

The Ankley Family Farm is located about 60 miles north of Detroit and has been in operation since 1902, when Philip Ankley purchased a 160-acre farm. A little over a century and several generations later, the 80-cow dairy farm is run by William Ankley, 54, and now includes an additional 580 acres where the family raise 200 head of cattle and grow corn, alfalfa, wheat and soybeans.

A member of Our Lady, Queen of Peace Council 4556 in Imlay City, Ankley considers the most important things in his life to be faith, family and farming — in that order.

“Farming is a lifestyle,” said Ankley. “But faith has to come first.”

Ankley and his wife, Virginia, have been married for 26 years and have eight children. “There’s no better place to raise a family than on a farm,” he said. “We work together.”

Belonging to the Knights of Columbus is also a family tradition. All of Ankley’s six sons, except the youngest, who is 15, are members.

Bill and Virginia are both active in the pro-life movement. They serve as the council’s pro-life chair couple, and Bill serves as the president of Lapeer County Right to Life.

Being pro-life goes hand in hand with farming, Ankley explained. “It’s all intertwined,” he added. “Everything you do on the farm entails growth and life and depends on God’s blessing, from weather to healthy animals.”

As the farm has developed over the years, Ankley has focused on sustainability. Many of the current farm buildings were constructed using recycled material from the original farm, and in 2011, with help from a USDA grant, he installed 32 solar panels on the roof of his barn.

“If we don’t respect the land, we’ll have nothing for future generations,” he said.

Like the Ankleys, the Kinderknecht family has operated a family farm for more than a century. Anton Kinderknecht, a German immigrant, established the farm in rural, western Kansas in 1906. It has since grown to become a 3,000-acre farm with half the area for crops (wheat, sorghum, feed and corn) and the other half for grazing more than 200 cows.

Tom Kinderknecht, 75, has lived on the farm his whole life. He is a member of Park (Kan.) Council 2538. For him, farming is a way of life, and it’s a wonderful life.

“We grew up in a Catholic farming family. My parents helped other people out, and they helped us out,” Kinderknecht said. “I don’t know anything else.”

In recognition for the family’s many years of service, Kinderknecht and his wife, Barb, received the 2014 Msgr. John George Weber Century Farm Award from the Salina Diocesan Catholic Rural Life Commission.

Tom’s son, Tony, 35, has recently taken over much of the farm’s day-to-day operations with the help of his wife, Jaime. The couple has three young children. Tony, who is also a member Council 2538, does most of the farm labor himself and takes great pride in his work.

“You can see the life cycle of your work, and see a job from start to finish,” he said. “No year is ever the same.”

Despite a rigorous work schedule and all the unpredictable factors involved in farming, Tony is also active in the church, the Knights of Columbus and the community.

“In the end, it’s in God’s hands,” he said. “Mostly I pray for our health and that we will all be together.”

For Straight, Ankley and the Kinderknechts, like so many other Knights who run family-owned farms, food is more than just a commodity. It is a gift that is essential for human life.

“If you take care of God’s creation, everyone wins,” said Straight.

DAVE BOROWSKI is a staff writer for the Arlington Catholic Herald and a member of Edward Douglass White Council 2473 in Arlington, Va.