There are many Church-y “efforts” these days.  People see the devastation of this post-whatever era we are in and want to work to recover some sanity, or sanctity, or both.  Even if the results are mixed, there’s a simple and sincere desire to bring the wildly broad love of God to people starving for it. “We all know the way we’ve been living just isn’t working,” Michael Lichens, the editor for Catholic Exchange, said to me recently.  “We need new ways.”

I’ve found myself involved in the idea of the “men’s movement” like Fraternus, Exodus90, and St. Joseph’s Farm.  This last one – the farm thing – is something that, I think, is a reflection into a real movement within the Church.  The farm, an old culture of life, seems a desirable “new way” for many that has a magnetic draw.

“Movements” are hard to define.  Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, after scouring every document he could, sums it up this way:

A lay ecclesial movement is an association of the faithful involving primarily lay people in a new form of communion around a particular charism to build up the Church asking certain commitments of Christian life from its members while separate from diocesan and parish structures.

Pope Benedict XVI seemed to notice a movement to agragian life as a specific response to today’s challenges.  He once said:

More than a few young people have already chosen this path [of farming]; also many professionals are returning to dedicate themselves to the agricultural enterprise, feeling that they are responding not only to a personal and family need, but also to a ‘sign of the times,’ to a concrete sensibility for the ‘common good.’

What is astounding to me is how many men are drawn to the agrarian dream.  For some it’s all out farming and for others it is an insatiable need to get their hands dirty, even if just in a small backyard garden.  They want to feel like work and life and nature are not infinitely pliable life-putty that we mold and play with for our own pleasure, but things of objective goodness and meaning.  The “movement” is not coming from a centralized idea or “strategy”.  There are no clear spokesmen.  There will not be a document from the USCCB.  But it is a strangely intuitive and unorganized drive that many, especially young fathers, feel in their bones.

I came across the idea during my studies at the Augustine Institute. I was studying Catholic culture under Dr. Jared Staudt (of TCM fame) and was introduced to The Catholic Land Movement of England and other agrarian and economic writings.  From there I slipped into a rag-tag crew of millennial farmer wannabees.  I found Kevin Ford’s blog The Catholic Land Movement, and after a couple of years of talking (and after I had visited him and moved to a farm in NC) we changed the site to The New Catholic Land Movement.  We, and a few others, had big dreams of community and training farms, but we also had big families and nothing brings a dream bubble to earth like exploding [cloth] diapers and bills.  And farming is really hard.  My friend Tommy Van Horn started East Hill Honey Company after co-founding Fraternus, and is likely the most successful of those early wannabees.  I’ve only recently (finally) “got real” with my main farm product after almost six years of learning and milking – Once Upon a Cow Micro Dairy.

But older generations have also found their way to the land.  The New Catholic Land Movement seemed like such a secluded idea, but I recently came across a mention of it in a little book by Steve Wood, who is a sort of founding father of the men’s conference thing we see everywhere today.  In the book he expresses that now, looking back, he wished he had continued in the farming he had learned as a boy.  Having worked with fathers for his whole career, he knows there’s no answer for our ills without the family, there’s no family without a strong father, and that today’s society makes it hard to be a strong father.  Steve is now raising sheep in SC.  He’s not the only agrarian convert out there amongst boomer-and-up Catholic authors and speakers.  Marcus Grodi of EWTN and The Coming Home Network has also moved back to the land, and wrote a book about it.  He also mentions The New Catholic Land Movement in there.  That little blog hit a nerve.

I mentioned Dr. Staudt, but there are other Catholic intellectuals that are friends of agrarianism.  Joseph Pearce is another author and friend who, like Staudt, does not (yet) live on the land as much as he’d like, but is sympathetic, complete with functional chickens and, to my eyes, functionless ducks.  His book on economics is an inspiration to me.  I’ve also had a visit from Ryan A. Hanning of the University of Mary, a friend of farmers and a budding one himself.  Christopher Tollefsen of SCU to my south is a friend of agrarians.  Of course there is John Cuddeback of Christendom and his indispensable blog, Bacon from Acorns.  Having raised a lot of pork in the woods, John’s site was an instant winner for me before I read past the name.

Speaking of blogs, Sam Guzman of the Catholic Gentleman has taken an agrarian bend after moving to live near Clear Creek Monastery.  Those Catholic Men regularly features articles dealing with the ideas of a land movement.  I’m sure there are many other blogs with this bent, not including the explicitly farmy ones – feel free to leave them in the comments.

Then there are the schools, and people are seeing more and more that young people, boys especially, benefit greatly from the gritty reality of a farm.  On the other side of Charlotte from me is William Michael, who runs a farm and classical school.  He’s not the only blend of the farm and school.  In the tradition of John Senior there’s a new farm-based boarding school in Kansas.  The headmaster of St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh has moved to a farm.  Students from Canongate Catholic High School come to my farm for classes regularly too, and this year it’s an official part of the schedule and not just an occasional field day.

Perhaps the “signs of the times” and the “common good” are the motivating factors, as Benedict said.  I’m happy to see it.  I went to my neighbors the other day because my tractor broke and I needed to cut one of my pastures (I want the clippings on the ground before the lime so the worms get a kickstart for the fall flush of grass).  As we talked his kids and mine played with his various farm animals – Booger the donkey is the favorite.  Don’t judge him by the donkey’s name.  His place is a delightful mess of kittens, pigweed, and almost-running old trucks.  They’re plagued by modern challenges too, but are clinging to an old way of life.

I asked him for help cutting the pasture, and I offered to pay.  “Neighbors don’t charge for things like that,” he said.  “These kids [of yours] are the next farmers around here.  We’ll get you taken care of.”  The whole scene was refreshing in today’s atomized and consumerist culture.  He voiced tradition, belonging, economic sanity, generational connectivity, and the love of neighbor in those few words.  “The best men devote themselves to pigs and babies and things like that,” affirmed G.K. Chesterton.

The farming thrust is not just reactionary or idealistic, but a concrete and good answer to life’s contemporary strains.  We aren’t hunkering down – we’re living.  It’s also not a shirking of evangelical mission – people in the country have souls too.  We need new ways to live, and sometimes the old ones fit the bill.  I’ve used the term “back” to refer to going “back to the land”.  Let’s not forget our experiment away from it is a short one – widespread in just the last century.  Even if less of us are farming, we still need the land at least 3 times a day.  I think those of us living closer to it simply think that it has more to offer than meals.

I say all of this to primarily offer encouragement.  If you’ve considered the need for something different, something a bit earthier, you’re in good company.  If a big move isn’t in the future, drop me a line at St. Joseph’s Farm and we can set up a weekend on the farm for you and your friends.  Everyone needs some honest sweat and dirty hands every now and then.  Maybe you’ll be one of those crazies out there awed by soil, animals, and seasons.  There’s worse ways to be crazy.

09 04 2017
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  • MB

    Kevin Ford no longer farms. He was unable to make it work out.

  • Jason Craig

    What a great connection! Thank you so much for the comment. I was JUST pondering this conference idea, and would certainly love to talk about that further. I've seen your blog and book and didn't know the Catholic connection!

  • Andrew Casad

    Jason, what a blessing it is to me to see the good work that the Lord is continuing in and through you and your family! Count us in the movimiento too. Here on Vashon Island, Washington we have something of a convergence of Catholic back to the land famlies including my fellow parishioner, Brandon Sheard of Farmstead Meatsmith (commented below), Collin Medeiros of Burton Hill Creamery, Marcus Daly of Marian Caskets, and others. (We've even been called a Hobbit party by the economist Jay Richards). It has been a great blessing to me and my family as we made the move from Raleigh to the heart of the Puget Sound since there is in our parish a network of Catholic families who all have committed in diverse and complimentary ways to something the Benedictine vision of manual labor, prayer, and domestic life through which we provide support for one another. As Kevin Ford noted some time ago it is not good for us to go it alone and perhaps that is what the Catholic back to the land movement brings is a focus not so much another variant of "five acres to independence" but rather a creation of resilient communities, social shires, rooted in farming, faith, and family around the liturgical year. As you probably recall we started a St Isidore Community Garden at St Thomas More, Chapel Hill and connected in with food and faith networks such as Fred Bahnson's ministry at Anatoth and Wake Forest, Norman Wirzba's research and activism at Duke Divinity, and the RAFI Come to the Table conference. The Catholic Rural Life--one of those venerable lay apostolates that was a big part of the early liturgical movement connecting hearth and altar (that 1concernedmom mentioned below)--has continued to inspire many, myself included (see Michael Woods' Cultivating Soil and Soul: Twentieth-Century Catholic Agrarians Embrace the Liturgical Movement). I have found the work of Kyle T. Kramer and also many whom you already mentioned both a support to and evidence of the Catholic back to land movement you describe. Like others I have also spiritual inspiration in St Benedict, Peter Maurin, Catherine Doherty, Pope Benedict's green Thomism, Pope Francis' Laudato Si', Rene Dubos, and many more. As you probably recall we had our sheep farm outside Chapel Hill while I was at the parish; now here on our five acres on Vashon we're raising chickens, cultivating culinary mushrooms and other forest products, and supporting the good work of others here. As Nicholas Hesed noted below the overall back to the land, return to simplicity and plainness is not unique to the Catholic context; but, as your and Katie's story and so many of those mentioned here also indicate, there is a profound sense that the Catholic sacramental imagination provides a complete worldview for those who are looking to alternatives, like permaculture and self-sufficiency. Perhaps our greatest opportunity for evangelization is, therefore, among the Carrboro Farmers' Market and PCC Natural Markets, showing to others the consistent and beautiful way that these fruits of the earth and works of human hands to which so many are thankfully being drawn to again find their supernatural fulfillment in the thanksgiving offered in divine worship. "The harvest is ready," my brothers, lets go reap what has been sown! I do hope you can come visit us at New Chelsea (and our friends here on Vashon) and I hope to visit you at St Joseph Farm. Blessings to you!

  • Brandon Evan Sheard

    Thanks Mr. Craig for defining this, and supplying a list of the many places this new/old agrarianism is embodying itself in the Body of Christ.

    I can attest to this not being merely a "hunker down" movement as you say. While we are certainly focusing our energies on a home and the land surrounding it, this has profound evangelical impact on a culture of buffered and estranged selves (Brandon Vogt knows what I am talking about!). We host a three day class at our home called The Family Pig where we slaughter, butcher, cure and cook two pigs with eight hands-on students.

    I certainly don't craft these classes as evangelical mechanisms. They are earnest training in the good life as an assertion of delight in human scale, for the common good. But 'pigs, babies and things like that' are extraordinarily powerful ordinary things. And seeing as that there is no shortage of them during this class, some students leave with much more than pig processing know-how. In fact, it's as if eternity breaks through in direct proportion to how dirty we get.

    The evangelism of a messy house with five children is a cultural force of unlimited potency. The 'ingenuity of love' is inscrutable.

    The restless souls we meet are searching. Attending our class is explicitly part of their search. How bacon can lead them to their rest puts a whole new spin on comfort food and testifies to how generously God will put Himself into ordinary things.

    Brandon Sheard of farmsteadmeatsmith.com.

    • Jason Craig

      Brandon,
      We need to talk.

  • James Curley

    "Christopher Tollefsen of SCU to my south is a friend of agrarians" ... Dr. Tollefsen helped me slaughter our first two hogs and has participated in several more since.

  • poapratensis

    I've long believed that the greatest obstcale to sucessful back-to-the-land endvors is nearly always human nature. It is far easier and more ego-fufulling to sit and write and argue about farming than it is to farm.
     
    I've read all the authors and titles thrown around here, and I would hasten to add a few more if one wants to seriously go for it: John Seymour, Gene Logsdon, and Joel Salatin.
     
    I've been developing a modest farm/homestead that is fundementally sustainable yet effecient and productive enough that a modern person with a large family will actually stand a fighting chance at achieving the back-to-the-land dream. My hope is that I will at least be able to provide a model of what can be done so others can apply it to their own situations. Here's my blog about it: guidetograssandguns.wordpress.com

    • Cameron M

      Spot on. I just checked your blog, and I really like it. Straight to the point, honest, pondering thoughts.

    • Jason Craig

      Great blog. Yes, I agree 100% that the best farming is in soil and not arguing on the internet. I see your blog started in 2016, how long have you been on your current homestead?

  • Max

    You might be interested in the early practitioners of this charism: Plain Catholics who've been doing this for 110+ years. They're scattered all over the world, don't live in communities but practice a regular prayer life and live on farms or homesteads. Many are also attached as Oblates or Lay Affiliates to monasteries for spiritual support and direction, usually Benedictine or Cistercian in charism. Regarding computers and mass media, they assiduously control access to preserve a spirit of contemplation and focus on God. They also emphasize all of the teachings of the Catholic Catechism and the Bible, with regards to modesty and separation from secular culture. They are Catholics in communion with the Vatican.
    Description of History and Charism http://plaincatholic.webs.com/

    Blog https://plaincatholic.blogspot.com/

    • Jason Craig

      "Plain Catholics". Interesting. I've read a lot about the "plain" communities associated with Friends, etc., but have never seen this. Thanks so much.

      • Max

        There are now Amish converts to 7th Day Adventists as well. They're keeping their Plain culture but worshipping in SDA congregations.
        http://amishamerica.com/amish-seventh-day-adventists/

  • Nicholas Hesed

    This sort of movement is also happening in secular circles under names like permaculture loosely founded by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as well as holistic management founded by Allan Savory. These are brilliant men. The core tenets of permaculture are almost identical to some teachings of Pope Francis in Laudato Si.

    • Cameron M

      I've noticed the permaculture thing, too. It's pretty incredible, very fascinating stuff.

    • Jason Craig

      The permaculture movement is very very good. I know we all gather wisdom from where we can, but if I had to define my "style" of farming, its permaculture.

      • Nicholas Hesed

        Awesome. Good luck. Yeah Holistic Management is also worthwhile to study. Famous permaculturists like Lawton and Salatin employ Savorys basic insights. I guess you could call it mob grazing. It's genius stuff. If I were young again I'd get into all this.

      • poapratensis

        What has not yet been done is scaling Savory's ideas down to a homestead scale. In fact, almost all of these ideas are for beef and not dairy. Two of the things I try to do is try to apply relevant holistic management ideas (or management intensive grazing/rotational grazing) to single digit acreages. Some good books on this that apply it practically are Bill Murphy's Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence and F. Neuman Turner's Fertility Pastures.

        One of the fundamental paradoxes here is that grazing and holistic management ideas are very EXTENSIVE, meaning that the farmer is more of a wildlife manager, and large amounts of land receive little in the way of direct human input. This is the model of a low-population density society. We must, if increasing populations are to be accommodated, farm more INTENSIVELY and SUSTAINABLY producing much more high quality food with less and less land. I look to East Asia as my guide as to where farming must go; the trick is applying it in a temperate climate with a 120-200 day growing season and around 40 inches of rain. An excellent book EVERYBODY should read is Farmers of Forty Centuries by F. H. King.

        We've been blundering around for 4 years now, only started to blog since 2016, mainly because I don't write about stuff until I am reasonably sure it will be helpful to people.

        guidetograssandguns.wordpress.com

      • Nicholas Hesed

        Lawton applied Savory's concept to his chicken tractor which serves as the first phase of his food forest. Fairly small farms like Sala tins can use his ideas. BUT yeah it is large-scale stuff, but someday something like his ideas have to be used otherwise we will lose all the grasslands. There used to be 60 million bison in North America which is enough to feed countless people. All naturally managed by predators.

      • poapratensis

        The herd survey in just the USA is over 90 million, and that buffalo figure is just an estimate. Beef is so expensive most people with big families live on cheap ckicken and pork. So, we're going to have to up our game. Being someone who has abandoned the use of chicken tractors I will attest to their inefficiency and inappropriateness. They are a waste of grain and time, used more or less to gain access to high priced niche markets.

  • Daniel Madigan

    See my reply below, the link was not clearly a reply to the post but tothe article.
    Cheers

  • FrJoseph LoJacono

    I have seen this movement developing over the last several years now as a priest I am working with a religious originally from Minnesota to develop a spirituality of community farming. A Br. Joseph Kruse with the religious family Children of Divine Love, founded near Medjugorje now in San Cesareo, Italy has started an experience with his order developing a spirituality of farming. I have been advising him from a distance in the United States. I have seen others seeking such notions at John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C. and the agrarian movement with the Catholic Workers movement farms inspired by Peter Maurin. Now finishing a Phd in bioethics I see the urgent need for this movement. Part of my studies in bioethics have led me to see how all of life, including human life has become commodified. One of the big reasons is a lack of a notion of trust in the providence of God and even that there is an order in creation to which we must conform. I encourage and pray for those involved in the movement.

  • 1concerned_mom

    The back to the land movement is not new of course. About 30 years ago when the publication Caelum et Terram was still being alive, there were quite a few of us committed Catholics trying to get back to the Land. We purchased some land in Missouri to get back to the land in a warmer climate than North Dakota where we were living at the time and raising our family, because farmers were struggling already in the mid-1980s in the Great Plains trying to make ends meet. Farmers in the Great Plain have a hard time making it unless they have a big commercial operation or what's called value-added production, such as raising puppies on the side or having a large enough garden to take specialty produce to the Farmers Market etc.

    After meeting other Catholic families in the Missouri area where we had purchased land we found that they were having a very difficult time making ends meet, had left high-pressure jobs only to realize they had to take minimum wage jobs to supplement their families income from their efforts at getting back to the land. Hopefully some of those hurdles have been addressed and this new crop of Catholic farmers are more successful! And this from a Catholic farm girl from Wisconsin who was raised on a beef farm with 10 siblings. Alas, after my father died we had to sell it, as it had not been profitable for many many years.

    • poapratensis

      Money is a big part of the problem. The sad truth is that few people awaken to the call of the land until well after they have made life choices absolutely devastating to it (like taking on any kind of debt). I honestly think the best we can hope for is to do what we can ourselves but most importantly inculcate our children to value the land and actually prepare them for it.

      Fortunately the way economics are developing more people may be able to make a living from their homsteads in the future.

    • Daniel Madigan

      Thanks for this. It would be great for my family to go farm for a few years while it is feasible for me professionally and they are not well into adolescence.
      Have you seen Montessori's stuff on the farm as the most effective education for adolescent?
      Of course, Rabbinical Judaism beat us to this with the kibbutsch.

  • Count us in! Our family moved out to the country a year ago: five acres of land, eight goats, pig pen, and we're working on chickens, bees, and our garden.

    Was inspired by lots of things, but mainly after being born and raised in the suburbs and experiencing the drabness of modern capitalism, we wanted to better live out Distributism. G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Fr. Vincent McNabb, and the Catholic Land Movement were all huge influences, especially the book "Flee to the Fields."

    • cestusdei

      Brandon, why am I banned from Strange Notions? I reported some trolls to you and you banned them but somehow banned me too. There were no warnings or explanations. I was the reporter not the troll. Just wanted to ask and get a reason. Btw, I am a Catholic and certainly orthodox.

    • Jason Craig

      Brandon - I wish I would have known! I could have included you. I'm glad to hear you mention not only the classic Chesterbelloc and McNabb's, but also Day and Maurin - huge influences on me. Glad to hear about your adventure and I hope to hear more.

    • Cameron M

      Couldn't agree more, Brandon. Chesterton and Belloc are giants there. I really have grown fond of Wendell Berry, too, with some exceptions of any sort of inclinations he makes regarding Catholicism.

      • Yup, same here. Love WB, albeit with some caveats.

  • Cameron M

    Hey Jason, great piece. The links for St. Joseph's Farm aren't working. Think you can provide another?

    I can't help but feel the longing of the land. It's the primary goal for my wife and I. Once the debt is gone, we'll get a house on some land and get to work. Primarily for self sufficiency and perhaps a little bit for farmers markets on the side.

    I've seen all of those referenced you made, (TCLM, TNCLM, Marcus Grodi, etc...) and you're right, they put a bug in you that you just can't shake. There's something especially attractive about the homestead as a father. I can't think of a place to bear the times and escape to revel in God's goodness and mercy. The farm does just that.

    North Carolina is an area we're interested in researching more about as it seems to encompass many of the sound morals and values we as Christians ought to have.

    • Jason Craig

      hm - not sure why the link didn't work. stjosephsfarm.com

      I know we've talked NC before. Less talk... c'mon and visit!

      • Cameron M

        I know, man. I tried subscribing to the farm for updates, but keep getting errors. A visit might not be entirely out of the question, sir!