By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
WASHINGTON — Twice as many farmers turned out for a conversation on caring for God’s creation than the organizers — Iowa Interfaith Power & Light (Iowa IPL) and the Diocese of Davenport anticipated. They scrambled to set up additional tables and chairs as more people arrived at St. James Catholic Church on Aug. 14, eager to share their thoughts with Bishop Thomas Zinkula.
Some farmers thought the “Season of Growth” event, described as “a time of reflection, learning, action and fellowship to prepare to take climate action together,” signaled an effort that could adversely affect their livelihoods. Participants shared their disappointment after learning that Bishop Zinkula could not be present. “Most of the people who came here wanted to meet with the bishop,” said farmer Tom Baker of Keokuk County. However, everyone stayed for the conversation. “People were having conversations, airing it out,” said farmer Rob Brenneman of Washington County, one of five panelists at the event.
“It was a tough, raw, discussion in which not everyone aligned but everyone learned something,” Mitchell Hora, a panelist and Washington County farmer told The Catholic Messenger in a follow-up email. “It’s so cool to see that progress can be made when conversations are entered into from a position of listening, respect and an understanding that as farmers it is our duty to be a shepherd of God’s creation.”
Hora is the founder and CEO of Continuum Ag, an agricultural consulting business that helps growers take a wholistic approach to their operation. “We have to tell our ag story and find balance in the sustainable ag movement,” he said. “Washington County is way ahead of the adoption curve but adoption of regenerative ag systems across the industry is going to take time. We are making big progress, Washington County is leading the way, and my company, Continuum Ag, is happy to be an enabling partner in the pursuit.”
Hora, Brenneman and fellow panelists Heather Hora, Pat Gent and Jolisa Bombei talked about their passion for farming and expressed pride in Washington County’s sustainable farming practices. The farmers are determined to pass on their faith, values and livelihoods to the next generation. They care about stewardship of the earth but it has to be economically sustainable, Mitchell Hora said.
Brenneman and some other farmers perceived an anti-meat agenda in promotional materials about the event, which prompted their attendance. “If this is an anti-meat campaign,” he said, “then we’ve got a problem.” Irene DeMaris, executive director of Iowa IPL, assured the gathering that the event was not an anti-meat campaign. It was an opportunity to listen to farmers, to collaborate with them in caring for creation.
Deacon Kent Ferris told the participants he would deliver their message to Bishop Zinkula and ask him to get a trip to Washington County on his schedule to hear first-hand what farmers have to say. Brenneman said he would be happy to host Mass, conversation and dinner on his family’s 4,000-acre hog farm.
“In a follow-up conversation, Brenneman, told The Catholic Messenger, “We’re farmers. My God, we live and die by God … everything lives, everything dies. We all have a purpose. That was the main point we wanted to get across. We don’t want division between clergy and parishioners.”
“I pay attention to what’s going on in the world and in the industry. The concern is climate change,” Brenneman said. “Is it really the number one issue? If you believe in climate change, is it caused by livestock? Climate change is politics. Stewardship of the earth is not politics. Stewardship is what we’re all about.”
Kim Novak, a pharmacist, and her husband, Tom, a retired physician, traveled from their home in Iowa City to attend the event. “I am fully a believer in climate change in the sense that we (as human beings) are having a major effect. I feel we are called to be stewards of creation. It’s not ours to own; it’s ours to care for. Do we think we should do everything to care for our land in the best way possible? As a person of faith, the answer should be yes.”
All people should take an interest in learning new things and incorporating them into their occupations, Novak believes, including people “caring for our land, our water and our air. I, as a pharmacist and Tom as a physician affect a small patient population. Farmers have an effect on generations going forward.”
“Growth is part of creation. I love hearing the stories of people doing the work (of caring for creation). I want to support those people. We should be celebrating those people and pulling other people along.” She hopes future dialogues will include more rural and urban voices and diverse opinions.
The diocese will continue the conversations, Deacon Ferris said. “Iowa IPL is a good neighbor as we discuss caring for creation with folks from other faith traditions. Since 2015, with the release of the Laudato Si’ encyclical, greater emphasis has been placed on having intentional conversations with people of faith, people of different faiths, regarding the climate crisis.”
The plan for the Season of Growth event, following a mode of Pray, Learn and Act, was to begin in prayer, have table discussions and then discuss means of action to respond to the climate crisis, Deacon Ferris said. The larger than anticipated crowd required pivoting.
Participants “spoke proudly of their county ranking at or near the top of the state in soil conservation practices such as cover crops and no-till planting, as well as in solar power. Farmers also mentioned significant gains in operation productivity that folks outside the county might not be aware of or appreciate,” Deacon Ferris said. “I remain committed to supporting the work of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light because as followers of Christ we have much to offer in helping ‘restore our shared world, which is good, plentiful and just,’ as Iowa IPL’s faith statement says.”
The event “reminded me again that deep listening is part of climate action and a way to invite more people into the conversation. It’s a way to learn and grow that can be uncomfortable and liberating,” DeMaris said. “Our hope was to gain momentum to take climate action in Washington County. It became clear that people showed up to be heard and seen by the diocese in terms of creation care.”
“I’m grateful for the conversation and reflecting on how we can all best work together to care for creation as people of faith,” DeMaris continued. “We are committed to uplifting rural voices of faith and I hope to work with some of the participants to highlight their faithful farming. Iowa IPL will keep showing up and I will be in touch for some farm tours in the near future because I can’t wait to see people’s farms and keep building those relationships.”