The Non-Fertile Separation of Church and Farm

"…and thus was ever on their lips the countryman’s perpetual lament, so reasonable to the ear, but which recurs unfailingly: ‘Had it only been an ordinary year!’” – Louis Hemon (from Maria Chapdelaine, p. 124)

* * *

Harvest has arrived early this year. The massive - and massively expensive - combines are working around-the-clock as farmers take to gathering their crops. Where did the summer go? Soon it will be another eight months of snow and lockdowns.

The familiar smell of wheat and dust mixed with a deliciously cool freshness - the usual autumn treasure - seems stale this year. It is not an enjoyable crisp scent this harvest, but one simply composed of dust and heat. The harvest is a disaster. The wheat appears half its usual size. The summer drought, which was no doubt caused by our sins against the climate – at least if you ask a politician, or Pope Francis - has crushed the spirits of farmers. The heartfelt lament of the farmer is spoken once again: Had it only been an ordinary year!

The truth is that farming is no easy task. I do not mean so in the physical sense where, as you might read in Maria Chapdelaine or Little House on the Prairie, one toils with a physical and mental vigor which would shame any of us today. Those days, romantic, natural, and physically bruising, are no more. Rather, farming has become a pressure-filled business, often requiring a commerce degree to manage properly. When I say that farming is no easy task, I refer primarily to what it has become. 

The humble family farm is no longer. Not too long ago in my area a farm went up for sale. After thirteen generations of family farming the sons, as though belonging to a Wendell Berry novel, decided they did not want to carry on the tradition. Or maybe they wished to carry on the tradition, but then realized that a multi-million-dollar computerized profession had taken over said tradition. The “family farm” had grown to include a 4000 square-foot house, some 42 quarters of land, and an impressive 830,000-bushel grain handling system. It was put on the open market, and eventually bought by an entire Hutterite colony for a cool $26.5 million. The purchase was half-a-million dollars below asking price. What a steal.

This is farming today. To be honest, it terrifies me. Grain prices, gasoline gouging, and globalism being what they are, not to mention Justin Trudeau’s crippling carbon tax in Canada, means that one must attempt to go big or risk shriveling into the soil. General expenditures are often a half-a-million dollars here, a half-a-million dollars there. It is not realistic, nor truly human, for that matter. Even to own a hobby-farm, as my wife and I would love to do, requires one to win the lottery first. The pleasure of raising pigs or a few head of cattle sounds wonderful. When the bills start pouring in for land, bales, and fuel, the warm and fuzzy feelings quickly disappear. What would Pa Ingalls think?

As stated earlier, this year the harvest is not plenty, despite what is sung at the cheesy Mass here in town. How will the farmers get through this year? With many having ditched crop insurance to pay the carbon tax, I imagine some form of government assistance will be required. It might be enough to weather another year. The banks might come calling for a few farms, but overall life will carry on as before. 

I cannot help but wonder what the Church has to say in all of this? Surely it must matter, for the noble occupation of farming had a special place in Christ’s heart. Mark 4 does not say, “The occupational therapist went out to offer occupational therapy…”, but rather, “Behold, the sower went out to sow.” Unfortunately, my personal observation is that the Church and the farmer are currently not at peace with one another. 

Attend a weekend Mass in a typical rural town and this is what you will observe. There will be multiple prayers offered for a good harvest, for safety of the farmers, and for good weather. At least one or more of the many “homilies” will include chitchat about the state of the fields, and what the most recent weather forecast is predicting. And, of course, crops and produce will be showcased in front of the altar, paradoxically evoking Cain’s unworthy offering. To all of this you may see a few farmer wives nodding or blushing from the attention. Meanwhile, their husbands will be out in the fields working. For them God will have to wait a few more Sundays; there is mammon at stake.

This seems the height of what the modern Church has to offer farmers. It is little more than a slap on the back, and a kind word of appreciation. “Good luck! Keep us warm and well-fed, dear farmers. Hope to see you once harvest is completed!” Perhaps it is all heartfelt. But it is all mostly unhelpful. Farmers have souls too. They need to hear some difficult truths, and then they need a strong and grace-filled Church to back them up. 

First, the difficult truth. I will be blunt: Despite having attended hundreds of Masses in rural farming communities, I have never once heard a priest utter a single word about the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, much less to not work on this day. Not once. I am not sure if priests are afraid of the backlash they might receive from a tired farmer, or if the priests truly believe that all farm work is necessary on Sunday. 

We all know of the great St. Jean Marie Vianney’s position on the matter. “If we ask those who work on Sunday, ‘What have you been doing?’ they might answer: ‘I have been selling my soul to the devil and crucifying our Lord…’” (The Curé d’Ars p. 135). Vianney was strict. Perhaps some might argue he was too strict: “Yes, elsewhere priests may grant permission to work on Sunday; I, at Ars, cannot do so” (p. 137). However, what we have is the total reversal of Vianney’s holy demands. Now, missing Mass on Sunday is the implicit position for many farmers, as though any sacrifice of inconvenience in the matter is too burdensome. To which I ponder: How can we ask God’s blessings on the fields if we cannot even attempt to honor His very Commandments? It is hypocritical.

Though I sadly begrudge the demands placed on farmers to grow their business, what is needed is a slight scale back in operations. One-seventh of their time and efforts must be sacrificed; one-seventh being the time for the Lord’s Day. Yes, it may require significant sacrifice to carry out, yet it may also merit fruitful blessings. 

I plea for the Church to preach to farmers what is difficult. I also plea in turn for the Church to buttress these demands with true and effective assistance. Fortunately, there is an established way to do this.

When I first went to university, I started attending the traditional Latin Mass. One day after Mass a lady pulled me off to the side and, in a hushed manner, said she had something that might interest me. Out of her purse came a brown envelope. I half-imagined her attempting to complete a drug deal at the back of the church. It was in a rough part of town, after all.

“I’ve got something I think you’d like to try,” she carried on, sniffling as she pulled a pamphlet from the brown envelope. “It’s called… rogation days. The main day is on St. Mark’s feast day. We offer prayers and fasting to God and ask that the crops be protected from natural disasters and…” Her voice trailed off as she noticed me turning pale.

“Um. I’ll think about it,” was all I could muster. I half-wished she had tried to offer me cocaine. It is easy to decline taking drugs. But to shy away from prayer and fasting? What a pathetic young man! In fairness to me, however, these rogation days sounded… difficult.

Rogation days are supposed to be difficult. Yet, if the Church must ask farmers to do what is difficult and give due honor to Sunday, the Church must also ask what is difficult of all its members. For the love of farmers, their work, and their souls, we need a full return to rogation days. In a word, we need less trust in government bailouts, and more faith in almighty God. The farm and the Church must not be separate.

Such are my thoughts as I drive past a field being worked on by no fewer than six towering combines, desperately scavenging for sustenance. No, it is not an ordinary harvest. But in these godless times, we must hope for more than what is ordinary. A simple solution awaits our efforts. Let us instill in the farmers a slight reprieve from their many toils. One-seventh is needed. And with that, may millions of Catholics in the Church requite for the one-seventh with an abundance of prayer and fasting.

Perhaps then the harvest will be plentiful.



Cover photo from AgDaily


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