The memorial of St. Isidore, the saintly twelfth-century farmer made me think of another saintly farmer. I'd like to tell you a bit about him.
Outside Eugene, OR, in the rolling tree-covered hills of the Crow-Applegate district is a little slice of heaven called "Laughing Stock Farm." Paul Atkinson is a farmer who has had a profound influence in my life. I was present at his wedding to his wife, Syd, when I was just a residency student working at the Newman Center in Eugene. I remember well their simple ceremony and joyful reception on the farm owned by Paul's parents at the time, and now managed and owned by Paul.
Paul is passionate about farming, especially sustainable farming that feeds people who live in the area where the farm is located. He has worked hard to educate locals about the virtues of sustainable agriculture, including the state legislature. Since WWII, farming has changed dramatically in this country. New technologies, mechanization, increased chemical use, specialization and government policies that favored maximizing production has meant that more food is grown by fewer and fewer people. But there have been many costs. Prominent among these are topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, the decline of family farms, continued neglect of the living and working conditions for farm laborers, increasing costs of production, and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities.
A growing movement has emerged since the late 70's to question the role of the agricultural establishment in promoting practices that contribute to these problems. Paul is one of a growing number of people involved in food production who are searching for more sustainable ways of farming. I remember visiting Laughing Stock farm one time and listening to Paul explain one small aspect of sustainable agriculture. We walked through a field in which free-range chickens were scratching through the grass. Paul explained that the previous year his small herd of cattle had grazed on the grass. This year the chickens were scratching through the manure in search of bugs. As they foraged, they worked the manure into the earth, naturally fertilizing it. To this day, Paul does not depend upon petroleum-based fertilizers to amend the soil.
I also learned of an ongoing project of Paul's. He has been correlating soil types and zoning laws in and around Lane County for years. What he has discovered is that the land that is most suitable for farming lies in the rich Willamette Valley floor. That land is almost exclusively zoned for commercial and residential use. The land zoned for farming is the least suited for farming in the area! This means that many farmers need to fertilize their soil, remove boulders, struggle with sloping fields that erode more easily, and other factors which increase their costs, raise their prices, and make their produce more expensive than that grown in Mexico, California, and other regions.
Part of the move to sustainable agriculture is to connect people with the farmers who produce their food, and to encourage people to buy local produce. My Dominican community and many families in our parish and beyond benefited from this aspect of sustainable agriculture. Our church became a drop-off point for a local farm that was participating in a program known as "community supported agriculture" or CSA. CSAs allow people to buy directly from local farmers, paying at the beginning of the season to share the economic risk with farm families. Farmers get cash flow to start the season without going into debt. Households receive a weekly box of fresh fruits and vegetables during the harvest. In Eugene, it meant we got fresh vegetables each week from May through October/November. Now in Eugene, some farms even offer chicken, cheese, honey and flowers!
Each week was a surprise. You never new what you were going to get, but the farm also supplied each box of food with recipes. Never had fresh spinach before? There would be a couple of great recipes to try. Don't like kale? People would gather at the steps of the church and trade vegetables with each other. It was a great experience, and prompted me to devote a small patch of our rectory backyard (which had no grass, only perennial flowers, bulbs, a few annuals, rhododendrons, azaleas, roses and wisteria) to an herb, tomato and lettuce garden.
I have very fond memories of helping Paul weigh and bag his free-range turkeys on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. They were all hormone free, and some of them topped 40 lbs.! Pulling the turkey carcasses out of their ice bath, draining the frigid water from them, stuffing them quickly into a bag, weighing them and putting the pricetag on the birds was gratifying labor, and made me appreciate the hard work involved in food production. Of course, our community always bought one of these delicious, juicy turkeys. They were incredible!
Why does Paul do this? It's not to make more money. In fact, today when I spoke to him on the phone, he mentioned that he's worried about the future. With agribusinesses (four major ones dictate much of our social policy regarding food production) promoting the use of ethanol and other grain alcohols to fuel our cars, the cost of food grains (whether used in the process or not) is going to increase. That means the grains that Paul uses to feed his pigs, turkeys and chickens will increase, and thus cause his costs to soar. Because he sells his meat locally, some of the cost will be offset by lower shipping expense, but I could tell he was worried.
Paul does this because he sees farming as an act of stewardship of God's creation. The farm's not his, he says, it's God's. Paul believes "that to eat from local farms is the most universal introduction and connection to 'home' and to 'place.'" As an intentional disciple of Jesus, he's doing his best to change food production in his county. He has worked with other farmers to improve the sustainability of pasture and livestock management through the development of a grazing network in Lane County, OR. He's taken his findings regarding land use to the state legislature. He's helped school children understand better where food comes from, and led a Lenten study project at St. Thomas More parish in Eugene which allowed members of the community to understand the hidden costs in the cheap food we so often find in our mega-super-dooper-markets.
If you want to read more about Paul and his farm, click on the title of this post and read what a writer for the Atlantic Monthly had to say about his "principled pork." Unfortunately, you need to be a subscriber to read the entire piece.
Happy Feastday, Paul - and all local farmers. God bless you!