Working farms emphasize the “fair relations of the sisters with all creation”
publisher’s Note: The term “just transition” is part of the growing lexicon on moving from a fossil fuel economy to clean energy. But the meaning of this phrase varies. The term can also mean the need for a fair transition to new jobs for workers in industries such as mining. Catholic sisters are included in the spectrum of transition efforts.
Although they vary in size, location, and growing area, sister farms in the U.S. share sustainable approaches to agriculture, whether it be in terms of organic practices, promoting locally grown food bought by shareholders, or providing products to those in need .
Exact numbers are hard to come by, said Sr. Miriam MacGillis of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey and director of Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, and was recognized by her colleagues as an early leader of sisters involved in agriculture and the concern ecological issues.
MacGillis told GSR that she knows of at least 32 farms, gardens or ecological centers that have their roots in educational seminars at Genesis.
Two of the most established sister-run farms in Indiana include the Daughters of Charity’s Seton Harvest Farm in Evansville and the Sisters of St. Francis’ Michaela Farm in Batesville.
Seton Harvest farm in southwest Indiana prides itself on producing and sharing with those in need: In 2020, the farm harvested 29,056 pounds of produce, said the farm, about a sixth of which – more than 5,300 pounds – Groups such as pantries were donated to local people. “A portion of each week’s harvest goes directly to nearly a dozen different charities that serve the poor and hungry,” the farms website said.
Sr. Francis’ sisters said the Michaela Farm in southeast Indiana took its name from Sr. Michaela Lindemann, an early ward member who “began to direct the work on the then newly acquired land in 1854”. Running a community-sponsored agriculture or CSA program, the farm brings together “agriculture, education and spirituality” and “builds and refines the Franciscan value of” righteous relationships with all creation “”.
In Kentucky, the Mount Saint Joseph of Kentucky Ursuline Sisters run a working farm with an educational component where local college students studying farm management conduct experiments and studies. You will learn well-founded management techniques such as organic farming – no pesticides, for example in fruit trees -, rearing grass cows, no-tillage and crop rotation.
Another is the 10-acre Monocacy Farm Project in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, owned and managed by the School Sisters of St. Francis, Province. The farm is owned by the municipality on 53 hectares.
The idea of a working farm on arable land that has long belonged to the parish arose out of the 2011 general chapter of the parish, in which the sisters were asked, in part, to “take concrete steps to take care of ‘our sister, mother Earth ‘, “said Sr. Bonnie Marie Kleinschuster, the court director and provincial chancellor of her ward.
The school sisters’ project has evolved to include community gardens, a designated production farm for produce for local soup kitchens, and shelters for the homeless – about a dozen in all.
The farm once had a community supported agriculture or CSA program. In 2019 the farm decided to initiate an annual “pick-your-own” or PYO program. “We had the feeling that the PYO could serve a wider range of people,” said Kleinschuster. “It’s much more versatile and affordable for all income levels. Membership costs just $ 10 for the season and then members donate whatever they can or want and support the farm mission.”
In separate emails, Kleinschuster and Eli Stogsdill, the farm’s chief breeder, both spoke about the importance of monocacy and other local farms in offering an alternative to a farming system in which Americans tend to “take our food from distant places.” secure, “said Kleinschuster.
“The more we can support ‘locally’, the better our communities are doing,” she said. “We are very dependent on a supply chain” – a fact that is underscored by the challenges of the COVID pandemic.
During the height of the pandemic, Kleinschuster said the farm was able to provide a steady supply of produce to its partners such as pantries and soup kitchens, while continuing the annual PYO program, which saw a significant increase in membership. The number of members grew from nine in 2019 to 82 in 2020. That year the number rose to 101 members. “That was unbelievable,” said Kleinschuster.
“People from the local community wanted to go to the farm rather than go to the grocery section to do the grocery shopping,” she said.
“From conversations I’ve had with members, especially young families, it’s not just about food,” she said. “It’s about knowing where the food comes from, how it’s grown and teaching children how to live sustainably.”
A just transition to sustainability for future generations is a necessity, said Stogsdill.
“Together we are all faced with serious ecological crises that are deeply linked to social and economic injustices,” he said. “Our work is a small contribution to the growth of healthy communities from the ground up.”
This also includes a spiritual element, said Kleinschuster. “We are related to all of creation. We are called to manage, “she said, adding,” we must do what we can to keep all of creation healthy. “
A lot of good work is being done on these and other farms, MacGillis told GSR. However, she fears they will not dent in the face of a dire global environmental crisis and a predominant agricultural enterprise system based on fossil fuels and “industrial approaches to land use”.
“We live in an unregulated world of toxic chemicals,” she said, adding, “We are at a very critical point as to whether life goes on on this planet.”
MacGillis, who was extensively introduced to scholar Sarah McFarland Taylor in The 2007 Green Sisters and who spent a private year studying with renowned theologian and environmental thinker Thomas Berry in 1984, believes religious institutions are part of the problem.
She argues that institutional structures remain subject to a patriarchal system that does not question the notions that humans are at the center of creation and that men are superior to women.
“That’s pretty awesome,” MacGillis admitted. “But we need some rigorous reality tests, especially those of us in religion.”
“It’s so late in the day,” she said of the urgent climate crisis and the challenges it poses and pressing environmental concerns. “We must now focus on the state of the planet.”