Giving Thanks Through Action
A Statement by the Roman Catholic Bishops of North Dakota on the Crisis in Rural Life

The Breadbasket in Crisis

North Dakota truly is part of the world's breadbasket. The state's farm and ranch families produce an abundance of food and other agricultural products while contributing to a rural life enriched by values that come from working and living close to the land and to each other. Sadly, the families and communities that create that breadbasket are in crisis.

Record low prices for some crops and livestock, combined with disease, floods, and blizzards have created an economic and social strain in our rural communities. These events worsen an already disturbing trend in the declining number of family farms and ranches, a loss of rural residents, and concentration of ownership in land and markets. Meanwhile, greater pressures are put on church ministries, public and nonpublic schools, the delivery of government services, the provision of health care, rural businesses, mental health services, and eventually the urban economy.

This crisis gives reason to reflect on what the Church can offer to matters concerning rural life. In doing so, the Church calls upon a social teaching based on the primacy of the human person in every economic and social activity, including agriculture, and the Church's experience as pastors, teachers, and ministers to the very people most affected by this crisis in rural life.

Principles for a Just Agricultural System

The present crisis in rural life must move all persons, in a spirit of cooperation, to work for a just agricultural system situated within an ethical framework rooted in principles of social justice found in Sacred Scripture and the Church's social teaching.

The Need to Respect the Life and Dignity of the Human Person

Ultimately, the test of any agriculture policy is a moral one -- does it make concern for human life and dignity the guiding norm? Public and social policies must put the human person first. Society cannot consider farmers and ranchers expendable in the name of "progress" or "efficiency."

Respecting human dignity means we must respect the vocation of farmers and ranchers. By applying their labor to God's creation and providing essentials, such as food and clothing, for life and dignity, farmers and ranchers exercise a stewardship that puts them in unique communication with God. Society, through government, economic, and business policies, must respect the rancher and farmer by providing just compensation for labor and by supporting rural communities.

The Common Good

Life and dignity are best respected and protected in community. We must work to preserve family farms and ranches precisely because they provide one of the best guarantees of a healthy community.

The Integrity of Creation

By virtue of their vocation, ranchers and farmers should exercise responsible stewardship of creation. Agriculture and economic policies must support them in the exercise of this responsibility and not promote exhaustion of the earth's resources.

The Universal Destination of Goods

The goods of creation are meant for all, throughout generations. Excess profits in agribusiness, especially at the expense of the laborer, violate principles of justice. Policies should foster wide distribution of ownership in agriculture rather than concentration, whether in land, animals, technology, seed, genetic make-up, processing, or production. Moreover, social and economic policies must provide just compensation to ranchers and farmers for their labor.


Human dignity requires that persons and communities should possess the ability to exercise responsible self-governance. Subsidiarity means that while larger governments and businesses have a role and sometimes a duty to involve themselves in local affairs, they should give deference and due respect to local communities and families.

Option for the Poor

We should judge policies concerning rural life according to how they affect the least among us -- those with less power and influence, the most vulnerable, and the marginalized. A strong case exists that the "poor" today includes rural communities; not because they are among the economic poor -- although this is increasingly true -- but because they are among the least powerful and their way of life is marginalized, ignored, or forgotten.

A Framework for Action

These ideas provide not merely abstract principles, but a framework for action. Therefore, we urge citizens, local, state, and federal government, and all persons of good will to:

• Foster opportunities, such as cooperative associations, which give producers and communities more economic return and greater participation in the production process;
• Support the spirit and intent of North Dakota's Corporate Farming Law to preserve and maintain farm ownership and control in the hands of family farmers;
• Seriously examine and, if necessary, restrict the operation of large-scale animal confinement operations, looking not only at ownership and environmental questions, but also how such operations affect the common good of the community;
• Assure all persons in agriculture a just wage or price for their labor, including compensation through production contracts, and take action to ensure just contractual arrangements;
• Foster widespread ownership of land and other agriculture property and assist first-time farmers;
• Strengthen rural communities by helping them shape their own environment and allowing them to enact land use ordinances consistent with the principles of subsidiarity and the common good;
• Support research, education, and markets for sustainable farm and ranch practices;
• Provide rural communities with a support structure, including the provision of health care and education.

Some may dismiss such actions and concerns as contrary to notions of "progress" and "efficiency." To them, the loss of family farms and vertical integration is inevitable. The economy, however, is a human-made institution and not an inevitable force. Moreover, in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II reminds us that when cultural, economic and political currents encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency, a "conspiracy against life" is unleashed and a "culture of death" is promoted. We cannot embrace such a culture in the name of progress.

To address these issues, we call on persons to set aside partisan and ideological differences. We commend the spirit of cooperation that guided the North Dakota Commission on the Future of Agriculture and urge all persons and organizations to reach out in Christian charity, listen respectfully to each other, and work for the common good.

A Challenge for the Church

The challenges facing our rural communities are also challenges for the Church. The Church's ministry compels us to hear and respond to the needs of those in crisis. Reflecting on these challenges, we draw largely from the Fargo Diocesan Response to the Rural Life Crisis.

Call Attention to the Crisis in Rural Life

We call on agencies within the Church and all persons to convey the problems facing rural communities and the Church's concern for rural life. We must share the struggles facing rural communities and the Church's concerns with urban communities and those residing in other states.

Education and Catechesis on Rural Issues

We call on our teachers and catechists to incorporate concern for rural issues, with a view to Catholic social teaching, into their work.

Prayer and Worship Opportunities

Our worship and prayer life should reflect our love and respect for farming and rural life. We call on all persons of faith to offer thanksgiving for the blessing of farm and ranch families and rural life.

Charitable Services

Whenever our farm and ranch communities face economic difficulties, other problems may follow such as domestic violence, abortion, substance abuse, suicide, divorce, and loss of health care coverage. The Church, through parishes, charitable organizations, and health care institutions must reach out and help those in need. In doing so, the Church's response should provide a sense of hope rooted in the resurrection of Christ.

Place of Community

In many of our rural communities, churches serve a civic function. Parishes can take advantage of their role in the community by offering space and even leadership to those seeking to address community needs.

While the Church is especially called to take on these tasks, we call on other faith organizations, charitable entities, government agencies, and all people of good will to help those affected by our current rural crisis. In doing so, we must remember that such service, while necessary, should not distract us from the task of working for a just agriculture system.

Solidarity with Urban Communities

We make a special appeal to those not engaged in agriculture or who may live in urban settings. By focusing this statement on the matters concerning farmers and rural communities we do not intend to convey that farming and rural communities are better than those that live in urban areas or engage in other vocations. Rather, we wish to call attention to one of God's blessed vocations and ask the rest of our society give it due respect and attention.

Moreover, we ask our brothers and sisters in urban communities to take a special interest in the well- being of those that produce their food and steward God's creation. To a large extent, the health of our urban communities is related to the health of our rural communities. The virtue of solidarity joins us together in the struggle to preserve family farms and rural communities.

A Time to Give Thanks Through Action

God has blessed us with gifts of creation and persons who apply their labor to God's creation so that we may have food, clothing, and other essentials for life and dignity. Farmers and ranchers, their families, and the rural communities in which they live, work, and worship are blessings for all of us, no matter where we live. We have reason to give thanks. Let us show our thanks through concrete actions addressing the crisis in rural life.

James S. Sullivan, Bishop of Fargo

Paul A. Zipfel, Bishop of Bismarck

November 12, 1998