A little less than four years ago I wrote my first article for The Distributist Review. I entitled that piece: “From Teacher to Farmer: Why I went back to the Land.” In it, I laid out the clear reasons I had come up with for returning to the land. I was a little more than a year into full-time farming, and we had just moved onto our new farm in St. Leo, Kansas, where we would remain until May of this year (2015). St. Leo is a rural town in southern Kansas with a population around twenty-five. The Catholic Church can be seen for miles in every direction as a testament to the faith of the early German settlers who found the area suitable for the growing of wheat. Yet over the past fifty years, the Catholic Church has undergone a time of great upheaval. The hoped-for liturgical reform and renewal of the Church has often gone astray. St. Leo Church is really a microcosm for so many other rural parishes, and it is something that must be greatly considered before making a leap back onto the land. How important is a “good” liturgy to you and your family?
Today the typical rural parish is full of average-age farmers. Unfortunately, the average age of farmers in the United States is 65. There are few young families left in these areas. We understood that faith formation and Mass attendance would be a challenge for us. We were blessed soon after we moved with a young, faithful priest who said Mass reverently, although the Mass was still the “bare bones” of liturgy. We also occasionally drove over an hour to attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Being in a rural parish can often be difficult. When we compared it to the vibrant parishes we had seen in urban areas, we often pined for more. We had to do our best to live out our faith in our own home.
During our time living back home, we encountered a few people who were willing to talk about the “elephant in the room”. The slowly emptying towns and countryside was something largely ignored, even as its effects were beginning to be felt. In a conversation with one old farmer, we heard of the effects of tractors on the community. He was a big farmer with lots of land, but admitted that machinery had destroyed the community. Prior to the advent of big machines, man was limited by the natural limitations found in our nature and the nature of beasts of burden. A horse team only plowed so fast, and a man wore himself out behind them. This natural limitation stayed within the confines of nature, and it also allowed the community to remain diverse and vibrant.
The moral fabric of rural communities has unraveled almost as quickly as its city counterpart. The difference between country life and city life has largely diminished in the past few decades. Our landlord was a man who had been away from St. Leo for nearly 50 years. He left as a teenager and seldom returned during that time. However, he purchased the “home place” a few years before we moved in, and had wanted someone to take care of it for him. In conversations with him, he noted the incredible changes that had come over his rural home. He mentioned that when he was young, the community had been a real community. Their home had hosted many get-togethers and the large front yard had been the field for many Sunday afternoon football games. Now, the community was gone. The get-togethers and close-knit nature of the place was gone. He was truly astounded at the change.
The biggest change could again be linked to the change in farming. Farm families have few if any children now. Before, children had been an asset, but now they were considered a burden.
Technology has replaced children, and contraceptives make sure there are not too many “burdens”. A Protestant pastor in an adjacent town told of the “immense guilt” he had seen in the rural communities he served. He noted how the people felt guilty, because their parents and grandparents had made a life for themselves and their children on the land, but now the farmers were sending their kids off the farm to college. They saw no future in their rural communities, which was bleeding the place dry.
Seeing my home dying was a painful thing for me to experience. I loved this wind-swept dot on the map in southern Kansas, and I desperately wanted to see it continue. During our first summer of farming we decided to put out feelers to see if any other families would want to come live near us and farm with us. We thought that maybe we could slowly invite families to live there and build up a real farming community. A blog post on my New Catholic Land Movement website led one couple from Texas to come for a visit and eventually discern a move right down the road ¼ mile from our home. It was an exciting time for us and for them. However, it was 2012, and we were experiencing the worst drought we had seen since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. For 82 days no rain fell from the sky, and highs averaged over 100. Nonetheless, we had still been successful growing vegetables, and our friends were planning a move the following summer.
The winter passed and during those months we welcomed two historic snowfalls that put an end to the drought. We expanded our acreage and prepared for the beginning of community, and what we hoped would be a rebirth of rural Catholic life. However, in April, an all-night sleet and hail event destroyed many of our early crops. Yet we persevered and prepared for our friends to come. Our friends moved in mid-June of 2013, and we were ecstatic to have like-minded friends near us. Both we and our friends were drawing a salary from the farm, but we felt confident that our farming would be able to sustain this. We had put up two large high tunnels in order to increase our seasonal growing, and we doubled our total acreage. However, about a week after the move, we experienced an Exodus-style influx of grasshoppers. They covered the ground and ate everything they could find. Soon we saw that we would lose our greenhouse crops too, so we covered the openings with fiberglass screen … which the grasshoppers ate through! Thankfully, the grasshoppers were confined only to our home place, and not to the acreage up the road. We were able to finish the season and begin prepping for a bigger and better farming year ahead.
We enjoyed that winter greatly as we welcomed our third child and first son in January. Our friends had purchased a home up the road and were fixing it up for a spring move-in. All in all things were pretty good. We had tweaked our business plan in hopes of increasing sales also, and a third family was now planning a move to our humble community on the Plains. The autumn before, Catholic News Service had done a two-part documentary on our families entitled: “The Gospel of the Plow.”
Springtime in southern Kansas is usually one marked by recurring thunderstorms with the occasional tornado. But the spring of 2014 did not bring thunderstorms. In fact, it brought no rainfall whatsoever. March and April were planting times for us, but the heavens were closed and rain did not fall. At the end of March we began our planting into dry ground supplemented with our irrigation. Our tractor-driven tiller bounced on top of the hard ground. On the last three days of March, we experienced an extremely early heat wave coupled with intense southerly winds. This peaked on March 31st when it was 106 degrees and the wind blew 60 miles per hour. The next day our early seedlings were gone. They had simply been sandblasted away. Replanting commenced immediately, but another freak weather event happened April 20th when our high was 32 and we had an inch of snow. Yes, you read that all correctly, a heat wave followed by snowfall. Welcome to Kansas.
It was a few weeks into June when our first crops were ready. We were happy that we were finally able to provide some produce, but our happiness would be short-lived. As had happened the year before, a great pestilence of grasshoppers again descended on our farm. This time they were not confined to our home place, but also migrated to our bigger field down the road. We watched as whole heads of cabbage would disappear overnight. A few weeks into the disaster, we had a farm meeting to discuss our steps. It was then that I had to tell our friends that this simply wasn’t working. We would soon be out of money. Our friends took a deep breath, did a bit of discernment, and God in his kindness opened a door rather quickly for them. At the beginning of August we watched as their family packed their bags and moved to Michigan. We are still good friends, but recounting this is painful to this day.
That left only us. We finished out the season as best we could. We sat and we wondered what we should do. We loved our home very much, and to desert it would mean leaving so much. Living there had also been terribly difficult. Finally, we made the decision to leave. We know the need of a strong Catholic presence, of community, and the need of having a good climate. Our dream of a Distributist Catholic Agrarian Village lives on, but it will have to wait for another time and place.
In our own experience, we found both faith and community to be essential aspects of a return to the land. Our own attempt at building community ended in failure, but it left us with much more wisdom. It may not be prudent for families to jump ship and move to wherever they can find land. It is better for them to seek a place where their family can be nurtured within the context of a strong faith community. These, unfortunately, are difficult to find. However, a survey around the country will yield certain areas with an abundance of available land, and a strong center of Catholic life where your family can be sustained. Don’t give up on the dream; we haven’t!