Wheat farmers becoming chickpea producers? Conventional agriculture converting to organic farming? These were the topics of two recent news stories about how food comes to our dinner tables.
This year U.S. farmers have planted the fewest acres in wheat since 1919, largely due to a price-depressing surplus of grains worldwide.
So what are they planting in place of wheat? Chickpeas and lentils make up a big portion of the substitution. These crops are in demand and offer a profitable return to producers. Why is that? Because health conscious consumers are demanding high-protein foods, especially in snacks (think chickpeas becoming humus).
Responding to these market expectations is a smart move by farmers, not only because they are ensuring their own survival but also because they are contributing to a healthier society. (Wheat doesn’t contain a lot of protein.)
Another encouraging story about food production — and another smart move by some farmers — is the growth in organic farms nationally and here in Minnesota.
In 2016 U.S. farms and ranchlands saw an increase of 23 percent in the value of certified organic commodities. Minnesota ranks ninth in the nation for organic farmlands. Not all farmers are in a position to convert to organic production, but we can celebrate the rising number of producers who choose to go that way.
Good use of resources
Catholic social teaching supports these changes in agriculture. Shifting to chickpeas or to organic production are examples of farmers using their resources to benefit everyone. These changes are good for a consuming public becoming ever more aware of the importance of healthy diets.
Farmers do not make such changes without careful consideration of their bottom line, making sure that what they produce and how they do it will be profitable. In doing so, they are responding to an expanding public need and serving the common good beyond their own profit making.
These changing practices in agriculture offer everyone an opportunity to reflect on how well we care for the land that has been entrusted to us.
For some farmers, breaking the pattern of mono-culture wheat production on the same land and diversifying to other crops can be a powerful witness to the kind of land stewardship held up in Catholic social teachings.
In 1991 the U.S. Catholic bishops made this point: “Stewardship implies that we must both care for creation according to standards that are not of our own making and at the same time be creative in finding ways to make it flourish. It is a difficult balance, requiring both a sense of limits and a spirit of experimentation” (“Renewing the Earth,” 6).
Even as they seek alternative ways of producing food for public consumption, ways that honor and respect God’s good creation, these farmers are at the same time developing and using the gifts and abilities that the Creator has given to them — becoming the persons that God has called them to be. This, too, is stewardship (“On the Development of Peoples,” 15).
Keeping hope alive
An unfortunate contrast to these positive developments in food production is a recent news account about rural residents in Goodhue County. They face the prospect of a large hog producer building another facility to house 4,700 pigs. Citizens are voicing concerns about water contamination risks and the state’s weak enforcement of feedlot air quality rules. It’s an old issue that continues to plague some rural communities — unfortunate and probably unnecessary.
Chickpeas and organically farmed products? Though limited they are encouraging developments reminding us that creative and better ways to produce our food are always possible.
Responding to consumers’ expectations for healthier foods while making a profit for themselves, these farmers are keeping alive a hope. It is that even in this market-driven economic system it is possible to do well by doing what is right — respecting our neighbors, providing healthier food products to the larger community, and honoring that piece of creation over which God has placed us.
Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.