Testimony Before the Commission on the Future of Agriculture
March 7, 1998
My name is Christopher Dodson and I am the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, the public policy liaison for the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota. We appreciate this opportunity to provide testimony to the Commission on the Future of Agriculture as it addresses the question, "What is the future of agriculture in North Dakota, and what can we do to make the future better?" At the outset, we thank the Roger Johnson and the Commission's organizers for including church representation on the Commission through the North Dakota Conference of Churches and for recognizing that the future of agriculture is a concern for the Christian church. It is in the spirit of that recognition that we offer the perspective of the Catholic Church on the future of agriculture in North Dakota.
The Catholic church's contributions to this discussion stem from several principles of our faith and from our experience providing pastoral care to farmers, ranchers, their families, and rural communities. At the heart of the church's social teaching is the call to respect and defend human life and human dignity, and the recognition that life and dignity are best protected and defended in a strong healthy community. This principle necessarily calls the church to concern herself with agriculture and rural communities. How we produce our food, treat our natural resources, compensate our farmers and ranchers, and preserve rural communities determines how well we respect and defend human life and dignity and, consequently, who we are as a society. As stated by Pope John Paul II, "Respect for life, and above all the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress." It must also guide the future of agriculture in North Dakota.
The farmer and rancher have a unique relationship with God's creation and a unique connection to the well-being of the rest of society. God, the source of all creation, entrusts that creation to human beings. Farmers, through their labor, play a special role in the stewardship of creation. Their care of creation puts them in a unique communication with God. Moreover, by applying their labor to God's creation, they provide the community with essentials, such as food and clothing, for life and dignity.
Recognition of this unique relationship demands that the farmer and rancher respect the integrity of creation. Recognition of this unique relationship demands that society, in turn, respect the farmer and rancher by providing just compensation for his or her labor, supporting for rural communities, and fostering ecologically sound practices. When society does not respect this unique relationship, tragic consequences follow.
• Farming becomes merely a business, rather than a vocation.
• The labor of the farmer and rancher is no longer respected and he or she is not justly compensated.
• Land and resources are seen as disposable items rather than as gifts from God.
• Farm practices become dictated by powerful outside forces interested excessively with profit, causing the farmer to lose the capacity to make responsible decisions based on their unique connection with God's creation, and thereby diminishing his dignity.
• People on farms are seen as expendable for sake of efficiency, resulting not only in a loss of people in rural communities, but also a greater detachment, through "vertical integration," of the farmer from his land -- God's sacred trust to him.
The call for an agricultural ethic consistent with the proper role of farmers in God's creation, is not a new issue for the church. The Catholic church, through its social documents, has addressed agriculture and the related issues of labor, community, private property, food, and the environment for over one hundred years. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference has called for responsible stewardship of creation and respect for the vocation of farming for seventy-five years. For decades the bishops of the United States have called for policies favoring small and medium sized farms. Our own Fargo bishop, James Sullivan, recently raised concerns about the loss of family farms in a homily before a large crowd in Madison Square Garden.
Unfortunately, several disturbing trends in agriculture reveal a need to restore respect for God's plan for creation and the role of farmers and ranchers as stewards of that creation. These include:
• Unjust compensation to the farmer and rancher for his labor;
• Concentration of ownership of both farms and the processing of farm products;
• Farm land put to inappropriate use or complete abandonment;
• Pressure on farmers and ranchers to use environmentally unsound practices;
• Loss of future farmers and support in rural communities;
Some of these problems are not new. It appears, however, that the crisis in farm communities is growing worse, even as certain corporate agribusiness entities grow stronger. There exist positive responses to some of these problems and North Dakotans can do something about the future of agriculture to ensure that it is economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially just. We urge the Commission to consider the following:
• Continue to explore opportunities, such as cooperative associations, that return more profits to the producer and the local community;
• Preserve North Dakota's Corporate Farming Law;
• Support research and education fostering sustainable farm and ranch practices, and encourage markets for products grown in an ecologically sound manner;
• Seriously examine the growth, practice, and history 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;
• Seriously examine production contracts and take action, if necessary, to ensure just contractual arrangements;
• Support the recommendations contained in the Report of the USDA National Commission on Small Farms;
• Support the rural communities that provide the support structure for the families of
farmers and ranchers, including the provision of health care and education.
The church's concern and recommendations are sometimes criticized for "blocking inevitable progress" and promoting inefficiency. Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and President of the National Rural Life Conference, recently addressed such criticisms, saying:
Is it a question of inevitable progress? Progress should mean the better stewardship of the land, which yields quality produce to foster health. In the present situation, progress seems rather to mean ever greater profits for those who are already profiting greatly from the work of the farmer, while the farmer himself cannot earn enough to meet the cost of caring for the land and animals to produce dairy products, meat, grains and fruits.
As for the question of efficiency, 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.
These are serious words. The future of agriculture, however, is a serious matter. This
Commission is not addressing the future of any mere industry. It is addressing questions about who we are and how we respond to God's charge to care for his creation, respect human life and dignity, and foster the common good. Consideration of agriculture's future in North Dakota must focus on these defining questions, not merely how agriculture will survive in the next century.
Jesus asked, "What does it profit a man if he gain the world and lose his soul?" We must ask, "What does it profit our state if we gain the business of agriculture but lose the soul of agriculture?"
We thank you for this opportunity and wish the commission the best of success in this important endeavor.