Agricultural leadership takes many forms, symposium participants told

St. Paul, Minn. — The notion of agricultural leadership is more than just bringing in the crops on time and fulfilling contracts.

And that leadership can emanate from the Vatican and from farmers themselves, according to speakers at the "Faith, Food & the Environment" symposium held Nov. 5-7 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Christopher Thompson, academic dean at the university's St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, said he sees "a need for a Pontifical Institute on Farming and the Environment, like we do for the family."

Pope Francis is preparing an encyclical on the environment, but no word has leaked about its content.

Farming is "the second biggest industry next to the military," Thompson said. "How can this enormous industry not have any traction in Catholic higher education?" he asked. "I don't think it's rocket science," Thompson added. "It's just a blind spot."

Other speakers at the symposium latched on to this concept. Some suggested that Catholic Rural Life's new headquarters on the University of St. Thomas campus could be the signals that starts such a program. Others said it may be for the best that Catholic colleges did not get caught up in the land-grant college wave of a century and more ago.

Then, state governments were more free with allocating funds for public universities. The research done by the agricultural departments at those schools was likewise funded by the state, with the results shared for the benefit of farmers and, ostensibly, farms.

However, with public money drying up, agricultural schools have had to turn to the private sector for research grants. Those for-profit firms funding such research are more likely to support research to benefit their bottom line. "There's an agenda," said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.

Family farm advocates have to face some seemingly unalterable facts: the loss of 500,000 ranchers in the past 30 years, and the dwindling of farmers to 200,000 farmers who are now responsible for 80 percent of all food grown in the United States.

"The overall situation is unsustainable," Thompson said, and many question where beginning farmers will come from if the obstacles to entry are so high and the return on investment a gamble from year to year.

In 2012, the Pontifical Institute for Justice and Peace issued a document, "Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection." Jesuit Fr, Michael Czerny, chief of staff to the institute's president, Cardinal Peter Turkson, invited symposium participants to replace the word "business" with "agricultural."

"Vocation is more than about work. David's job was to be a shepherd, but he was called to be king," Czerny said. "Jonah did not want the job of telling the people of Nineveh they must repent, until God sent a whale to deliver him. Jesus told Peter he would 'fish for more than fish.'"

The farmer, Thompson said, "becomes a master in his craft only through the long and laborious tutorial in the fields. Agriculture is a unique human enterprise, for it is through this labor, perhaps more than any other, that one learns of the grammar of the Creator."

Czerny said agricultural leaders must get involved in issues that affects others' lives than just their own. He termed it "the common good vs. the ability to pay" An example he offered was the rising use of crops grow for energy, such as ethanol, rather than for food. This, he said, "has made a big difference in people's ability to survive."

There are other issues agricultural leaders must monitor, not the least of which is global warming, Thompson said. But, he added, "it is global warming in the next life that poses the most serious threat to a truly sustainable lifestyle."