U.S. farmers, Francis talk at Vatican

Leaders of U.S. farm unions stressed the importance of family farming during meetings in Rome this week, including at an audience with the pope Wednesday.

The U.S. delegations included five state presidents of the National Farmers Union, in addition to representatives of Catholic Rural Life. The union presidents came from Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

In addition to Vatican officials, delegates of the two organizations also met with the International Catholic Rural Association, the secretary general of the World Farmers Organization, and Caldoritti, Italy’s largest farm organization.

According to a Farmers Union press release, discussions centered on land use, conservation and fresh water access. During the meetings, Msgr. Peter Wells, the Vatican's assistant secretary of state, told the U.S. delegates of his concerns with the loss worldwide of family farmers, food security and environmental stewardship. 

“After spending time revisiting the values we hold, with the emphasis on our spiritual, moral and physical responsibilities to the land and the production of food, Montana Farmers Union grassroots membership should be proud that these same ideas are held high around the world,” said Alan Merrill, Montana Farmers Union president, in the statement.

Mark Watne, head of the North Dakoa Farmers Union, told Agweek.com the meetings served as a reminder that the Vatican sees family farms as "the best tools for food security, and men and women are the center of God’s creation and are the custodians of the environment."

A primary motivation for the U.S. farming reps was to dispel the notion that American farms are largely corporate-owned and operated.

“Many see American farmers as corporate controlled and nothing else,” said Doug Sombke, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union chapter.

He called the meetings “an incredible opportunity” to work with Vatican and European officials on the future of farming and “to let the world know what farming in the United States is truly like.”

The Farmers Union press release cited the 2012 Census of Agriculture that reported 97 percent of the 2.1 million U.S. farms are family-owned operations. The census also found 88 percent of U.S. farms were small family farms.

The Vatican meetings were part of a build-up to an international symposium on faith, food and the environment, set for June 24-27 in Milan. That meeting will represent the third stage of a two-year project focused on the vocation of agriculture in the 21st century.

The project -- a two-year endeavor involving Catholic Rural Life, the five Farmers Union chapters that met in Rome, the International Catholic Rural Association, and the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice -- seeks to define what the role of the farmer means today, one that goes beyond finances and toward upholding human dignity and the integrity of creation.

Organizers of the project hope to produce resources on the vocation of the agricultural leader by the end of the year.

Related: "Agricultural leadership takes many forms, symposium participants told"

Francis has spoken of the importance of the farming vocation on several occasions throughout his papacy.

In November 2013, he endorsed the United Nations inaugurating an International Year of Family Farming, stating “the family is a model of brotherhood in living out the experience of unity and solidarity among all its members, with a greater sensibility for those who are most in need of care and help, by preventing the outcrop of possible social conflicts.”

At the conclusion of that year  devoted to family farming in November, Francis asked in a message to the director general of Food and Agriculutre Organization of the U.N., “Who more than the rural family is concerned with preserving nature for the generations to come?”

In a January speech to the Italian National Confederation of Independent Farmers, the pope called farming “a genuine vocation,” with men and women called not only to till the land but also safeguard it, and one that “deserves to be recognized and appropriately appreciated, also in concrete economic policies.” He cited the elimination of obstacles that keep people out of the agricultural sector and the widespread allocation of agricultural land for other profitable enterprises.

“Truly there is no humanity without the cultivation of land; there is no good life without the food that it produces for the men and women of every continent. Thus, agriculture shows its inalienable role,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]