Home / Economics / Agrarian / From Teacher to Farmer: Why I Went Back to the Land

 

A little more than a year ago, I quit my job as a theology teacher at a Catholic high school to become a full-time organic farmer. I like to call myself a “Catholic farmer”, because I am striving to live out the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family, as well as Catholic social teaching, in my work and in the daily life of my family. I had been contemplating a return to the land for several years, and I finally opened myself to the grace needed to take such a leap of faith. I feel as though my story is a microcosm of the Catholic Land Movement as a whole. I doubt if any will follow exactly the same path, but hopefully some will end up on the land, working to restore Catholic culture, just as I did. After much prayer and discernment, I have narrowed my reasons for returning to the land to the following: restoring Catholic family life, bringing wholeness to our lives, regaining simplicity, and building Catholic community.

In our world today, nothing comes under attack more often than marriage and the family. In this modern assault, I felt it necessary to flee to the fields in order to provide an environment that is natural for family life, one where my children could flourish. City life with its “damnable conveniences” as Fr. McNabb, O.P., called them, is often a source of great temptation. The pagan temples and idols of today are not so clearly perceived, because they are often disguised in masks of pleasure, convenience, and materialism. To me, a return to the land marks a radical departure from the frivolity of modern city life as I seek to live a life that is meaningfully fruitful. Pope Benedict XVI has stated: “The rural family must regain its place at the heart of the social order.”[1] The rural family has traditionally been the backbone of healthy cultures. Never in history has the mass of humanity been concentrated in the cities as they are today. Pope Pius XII speaks very wisely of the benefits of rural life for families in his address to Italian farm laborers:

Your lives are rooted in the family—universally, deeply, and completely; consequently, they conform very closely to nature. In this fact lies your economic strength and your ability to withstand adversity in critical times. Your being so strongly rooted in the family constitutes the importance of your contribution to the correct development of the private and public order of society. You are called upon for this reason to perform an indispensable function as source and defense of a stainless moral and religious life. For the land is a kind of nursery which supplies men, sound in soul and body, for all occupations, for the Church, and for the State.[2]

I can add very little to what the good Pope of happy memory already stated. I sought a place for my family to live out its life in totality without the distractions that city life often brings. I found that place far from the glitter of city street lights, way out in the country whose nights are lit by heavenly lights alone.

As I labored away from my family during my first three years of marriage, I became acutely aware of a great lack in the way our economic system is set up. As I taught theology to high school students, I would often find myself thinking about my own children and the difficulty I would have passing on the faith to them, simply because of how much time I must spend at school. I did not doubt the dignity of the teaching profession. However, I doubted the wisdom of our modern age that insists on men working separate from their families, and always seeking after a wage. As I began to study the breakdown of the family so characteristic of our times, I began to realize that the breakdown of the family could be traced to the implementation of the wage system. What I realized is that the family didn’t start to fall apart when mothers left the home for the work place. Rather, the family’s disintegration began when fathers left the home and the land for the convenience of a city wage. Further studies brought further revelations. The etymology of the word husband was absolutely fascinating. Hus-Band literally means house-bound. When a man was married he became house bound. There in the home with his wife he would bring forth a family. There in the home he would work and provide for the family; everything was centered around the home. The home was not a place to return to after work, but rather it was the place of work, it was the center of life, and it was the stability that fostered healthy families. I realized that what I wanted was a life that was whole, one that had integrity. I wanted to live, work, and pray with my family all the time, not just in the evenings or when I was off work. I wanted to be a husband in the true sense of the word, and I wanted to be a father who was always there. Working towards a self-sufficient life on the land offers me the opportunity to truly be a father to my children. I can’t express in words how beautiful this has been.

The third reason I returned to the land was to regain simplicity. Reading Eric Brende’s book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, profoundly impacted my views on modern technologically-saturated life. I began to increasingly question the necessity of so many of man’s modern inventions. I also began to perceive clearly that technology was value-laden. It was not some neutral agent without direct causation. In fact, technology could and had drastically changed the way people lived. This was especially evident in farming where machinery had nearly destroyed the small farmer and created many demands for time and capital that could not be obtained on the farm. The byproduct of animal power was increased soil fertility through manure. The byproducts of machinery were used oil, broken parts, old, rusting machines on the back forty, and pollution of all sorts. I also noticed that a horse’s food could be provided on the land, but very few farmers had ways to provide fuel for their machines. It is not that all machines are bad, but the scale to which technology has infiltrated our lives led me to take my family down a different path. Now we analyze our technology piece by piece and look carefully at its effects on family life. If it is truly more harmful to family life than helpful, then we simply don’t need it. Too often a machine has taken the place of meaningful human and family interaction. Dishwashers haven’t decreased the dish loads, but rather increased the sinks full of dishes and decreased important interaction between people, especially children, as they learn to work together. Our family seeks to live simply. We find that with less technology, we suddenly have time for activities we previously couldn’t squeeze in. Without the time in front of the television, we find time to read together, sing and dance with the piano, or simply sit out back in the evenings and watch the chickens scratch about (chickens can be a source of great hilarity, believe it or not). This simplicity gets rid of excess distractions and leaves us with more time for one another.

The final reason I returned to the land was in hope of rebuilding Catholic rural community. Too many evenings I have sat pondering what it would be like to live in a rural Catholic village two-hundred years ago. Today Catholic communal life is gravely lacking. My wife and I both attended Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, and we fell in love with the Catholic life we experienced there. When we left, we very soon realized the lack of others with whom to share our faith. This is especially true in the physical sense. There were others like us that we could visit, but we were scattered here and there, and we only got together when time permitted. What we wanted were neighbors who shared our faith, that we would feel safe about sending our children over to see, and to play with their children in turn. We wanted a community that was more than just a Sunday gathering at Holy Mass. We sought a Catholic village. Starting something like this from scratch was simply out of the question. It seemed unnatural, and unless you are a former pizza company owner, then you probably don’t have the money to do it anyway. We are still seeking ways to build Catholic community wherever God leads us. It is a dream of ours that one day we will have many neighbors farming and doing their various crafts next door, but until then we will have to wait for the right door to open.

Our faith is sacramental, and therefore it is not meant to be only a spiritual reality. Catholicism with its sacraments corresponds to man in his entirety. We who are embodied souls need a faith that is both physical and spiritual. Thus we seek in some way to incarnate our Catholic life on the land and to share that life with others. I went back to the land because I believed there I would find the ideal environment in which to raise my family. There I could be a father who was present for my family. It has been a beautiful journey, and it is really just beginning. It is my hope that one day I will be surrounded by like-minded Catholic neighbors, all striving together to build a new Catholic culture. Going back to the land has radically changed my life and my goals. It has transformed my way of thinking, and it daily encourages me to be a better man. By throwing myself into the hands of providence, I am forced to give my fiat or give up. Those are my only real choices. Yet, I have never done anything so rewarding and at the same time so difficult. I hope many others will follow in my footsteps, and that one day we may have a countryside filled with Catholic smallholdings once again. Vivat Christus Rex!


End Notes

[1] Message of his Holiness BENEDICT XVI to the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for the Celebration of World Food Day, from the Vatican, 16 October, 2006

[2] Speech delivered by His Holiness to the delegates at the Convention of the National Confederation of Farm Owner-Operators in Rome on November 15, 1946, #4.

 

About the author: Kevin Ford

 

Kevin Ford is married to his wife Mary, and they have two young daughters. He and his family currently reside on their farm in southern Kansas. Kevin is a full-time organic farmer with a degree in Theology from Benedictine College, and he actively promotes the Catholic Land Movement and the benefits of rural life for Catholic family and culture.

 

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25 Comments

  1. May our Lord keep you and your family.

  2. Hi Kevin, thanks for this great article. I’m a young man of 23 who dreams of being a full time farmer. So, I have a question for you: How did you do it financially? Any tips?

    God bless you and your family.

  3. Beautiful.

  4. Our friends, Shane and Chiara Dowell, are doing the same thing:http://littleflowerfarmcsa.blogspot.com/. There are also many other like minded Catholics in the St. Croix Valley of MN. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is calling us back to the land?

  5. That is wonderful. I’m currently teaching at a charter school in Colorado and I’ve been reading Belloc, Chesterton, and McNabb over the past year. My wife and I are beginning to contemplate our own return to the land, and we’re glad to see that we’ll be in good company when we do so. We’ve got family in Parsons, Kansas, and have certainly considered the area as the site of a future home.

  6. Happily, husband doesn’t mean housebound! This is a good argument for voluntary agrarianism but distributism involves intervention to restore our birthright.

  7. We have had to take some “interesting” measures in order to make a go at the agrarian adventure. Thankfully, the start up costs for organic vegetable farming, which I do, is relatively minimal. However, it takes some ingenuity to find land and a place to stay. We decided to move in with my in-laws for a year to get started. They had a few acres we could use, and living costs were minimal. This was not a great situation, but it could have been worse. Now we are moving to a farm with a house and sufficient acreage near my homeplace in southern Kansas. We made enough in our first year of farming to make it through the winter and get started again next year. This is extremely rare with a business of any kind. We are moving far enough from our current home, however, that we will start over with a customer base in our CSA. This doesn’t bother us, because in our first year, we were able to build enough of a base from scratch to have a large waiting list, so we believe we can do it again.

    With regard to getting started, the most difficult aspect is the learning curve. I grew up rural with no real farming experience. I had only grown a small garden prior to this experience, but I am a quick learner, extremely detail oriented, and I have alot of country common sense. We had a drought, and I made a lot of mistakes and still made a profit. Our eventual goal is to get out of debt and become a bit more focused on life on the land, and less on making a living off of the land. It has been a long journey, but we are looking forward to next year.

  8. Hey Zach,

    I’m in Colorado as well. Whereabouts in the state are you?

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  10. Hi Kevin,
    Congratulations on your sea change and well done. I found your blog and will certainly be sharing it.

  11. Dear Kevin,

    This is an enjoyable piece. Here is something for you to mull over for future essays: what do those who read McNabb and others do, practically speaking, when they cannot return to the land? (emphasis on re-… i.e., go back). In your case, and other famous examples, a return to a tradition well-known is suggested and possible. Yet, what can the majority of young men and women– generations removed from the land and from manual labor do? Fr. McNabb called for men and women to leave the cities… yet he himself did not, but sacrificed much to try to encourage the restoration of sane life by “Nazareth Rules” as best he or other could in conext. I, too, yearn for a “Catholic village” and hope to see a successful “Catholic Land Movement” in my time- if not for me, for my children. I hope that you will continue to set down your thoughts for readers, since you are in the wonderful position of writing from experience, not merely abstract notions.

  12. Will there be a general movement back to the land?

  13. William – You pose the same questions that the original CLM founders posed. How do we get men, women, families back on the land. I admit that the learning curve is tremendous and daunting. I think schools (farms) for learning the skills and places to be formed in a traditional Catholic life are prerequisites for most city-formed Catholics who want to return to the land. I hope to open up my farm as a place of learning. We may have our first apprentice next summer. He is a young school teacher (unmarried) who has a small amount of gardening experience. However, this is just my family and there is only so much we can do. This is not to mention that we are still learning ourselves. It has been a difficult journey thus farm, but not without its immense blessings. I have a front row seat and real experience with which to write. Many who glow with joy over the prospect of returning to the land have never sat in the middle of a patch of withered greens in the middle of a drought. It is hard, but it is good.

    Richard – I do not know if there will be a general movement back to the land. Chesterton said something to the tune that there would be a return to the simpler form of existence, but whether we would return there by choice or by the road of ruin he did not know. Not all are called to go back to the land. Some must fight it out in the cities as Fr. McNabb did. I will focus more in a future article on what one can do where he is at to promote the Catholic Land Movement.

    Pax,
    Kevin
    Vivat Christus Rex!

  14. A wonderful message and a heartwarming story. Best of luck to you and your family Mr. Ford. Your message would be a lesson to learn for the Occupy Wall Street crowd who as greedy as the Wall Streeters, just asking for handouts. Your message is of virtue and character along with returning back to society and the land.

  15. The byproduct of animal power was increased soil fertility through manure. The byproducts of machinery were used oil, broken parts, old, rusting machines on the back forty, and pollution of all sorts. I also noticed that a horse’s food could be provided on the land, but very few farmers had ways to provide fuel for their machines.

    This is not complete and accurate, as follows:-

    – It is incomplete from not allowing for Nassau Senior’s observation in his classic work on wages, that working farm animals also impose a drain on the net available for people from their need for fodder crops, a drain that most machinery does not impose; this is another, adverse “byproduct of animal power”. This is a material consideration for people in times and places that are near Malthusian constraints. While this may not apply in our particular cases, a general description should allow for it.

    – It is inaccurate since it is usually both practical and convenient to fuel powered farm machinery using gas produced from crop waste burned in gasifiers. This does not need land set aside to produce fuel crops (though some will be needed for lubricating oil if you make that yourself – castor oil is quite good, but it will need the machinery to be taken apart and cleaned regularly to prevent build up of oxidised deposits), and it is convenient to gather the waste for use on a farm, which it is not for uses elsewhere like cars. However, the power machinery must be specially made if you do not have access to older equipment that can be converted, basically petrol driven with carburettors rather than fuel injection, and you will need either outside sources of nitrate fertiliser or the use of nitrogen fixing crops to replenish the nitrogen lost in burning – putting the ash from the gasifiers in small settling ponds to grow “green manure”, say from “mosquito fern” or blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), will do it with little land set aside.

    On forming a community, you might consider the traditional Chinese template of a large-ish square with sides consisting of four abutting, rectangular family farms enclosing a central square providing common resources for the four like pasture, a well, coppices, etc. That only takes four families getting together to buy and work everything, but it still provides enough people to concentrate co-operative effort on occasional, large tasks. There is a name for this which I do not at present recall, but you may be able to google well enough to track it down.

  16. You, sir, are an inspiration! We shall be praying for you and yours!

  17. Zach & Brandon:

    I am also in the metro-Denver area, and have an interest in returning to the land. Currently it is just in the idea phase for me; I’m not as far along in this as Mr. Ford.

    Feel free to drop me a line at fni@catholic.org. Perhaps we could share a few ideas over coffee sometime.

  18. Hey Kevin, good to see you writing about this! I saw your name on the National Catholic Register website and had to come read this. One of these days I’ll have to come visit you on my way to Omaha.

    I’ve been feeling increasingly drawn to distributism, but I know that I am called to work for the Church, and so I will keep teaching.

    However, I’d love your thoughts on this: we’ve just inherited a 12-acre plot of land from my father-in-law. It was formerly a ranch for sheep and cattle. We want to put it to good use, but we are both working for the Church and wouldn’t have time to keep up more than a garden. However, we have considered using it as a farmland and inviting local churches, youth groups, etc. to sow and reap on the land, and to give the produce to the poor. With your experience of a small family-run farm, is this something that could work and be effective for all parties?

    God bless you, my friend!

    -Micah Murphy

  19. Thank you for putting into words some of what I have been thinking for some time. I think the answer as to how we get people in the cities to return to the land is, as Peter Maurin saw with his vision of the Catholic Worker Farm, to establish connections between the urban and rural area. We need incubator programs to help young men and women without farm skills to be trained for work on farms but we also need some urban skills to be transferred to rural areas. When farms can grow food for those who are int he cities and those in the cities can be providing resources for the farm (distribution of products, etc.) then we’re close to creating the networks, the new (or restored) social systems, and the Catholic (dispersed) village we seek. I am a full-time pastoral liturgist and run a small sustainable farm outside Chapel Hill, NC and am in the process of gathering others who are doing similar ministry into a movement here. Again, thanks for voicing your experience and for taking the plunge. Ss Isidore and Maria, pray for us!

  20. My comment has been awaiting moderation for nearly a week now. At this rate, comments will close and people won’t have a chance to give feedback before it appears, if it ever does. What’s going on?

  21. I’m replying to Art P over on “There Is No Such Thing as a Bank Loan”.

    No, I did not leave myself wide open. Rather, someone switched off my ability to comment there, making it look as if I couldn’t rebut and instruct John Medaille when he misread the implications of my comment(s). I suppose that, if other people like yourself can still comment, it looks to them as if my silence is because I’m stuck on the argument. But I’m stuck at a more physical level.

  22. Mr. Ford,

    While I am not a Roman Catholic – I am a Christian of the Baptist idiom – I have been a long-time intellectual disciple of the Southern Agrarians and of their current manifestation in men such as Wendell Berry and James Kibler. I have a small thirty-acre farm in northwest Louisiana and struggle to move it in a sustainable direction.

    Your faith and the post which articulates it give me further impetus to continue. Thank you.

  23. Mr. Peters, I also live in NW Louisiana! Perhaps we can discuss this further sometime and collaborate on some ecumenical distributist farming.

  24. I pray for you and your family. God Bless you all!!

  25. Thank you to all of you for the comments and prayers. This journey it’s certainly not an easy one. However, it is well worth the effort.

    Pax,
    Kevin