By Father Bud Grant
One week this summer, while weeding the campus organic vegetable garden, I got talking with one of the student members of our environmental club.
It turns out that I used to be the pastor where her extended family lives; I even baptized her brother. Her grandparents started a family-owned seed corn company in the ‘70s and have done very well for the whole clan.
The patriarch, I remember, could be a bit, ah, unsympathetic about his neighbors when, during the ‘80s, a lot of family farms were in trouble. I once visited him at his office feeling like Daniel in the lion’s den. I’d gone to talk to him about why many of us felt it was a matter of justice to draw public attention to the farm crisis. He was very polite and very unconvinced. He even said that there were “too many farmers” and that they needed to be “culled,” in his word.
These memories were going through my head as his granddaughter shared her anxieties: it turns out her older brother, whom she obviously worships, and her grandpa, whom she cherishes, are at odds. The young man is in a college agriculture program and has concluded that all the “traditional” farm techniques of the past several decades are dangerous and destructive, including the use of the hybrid seed that his grandfather produces.
I mentioned that I was really impressed that his university is now teaching green alternatives to “big” Ag. They aren’t. Her brother is learning on his own. I went on to talk about her grandpa. He began his work, I said, when all farmers were being told that they had to “feed the world” and that the new chemistry of farming actually DID feed a billion people. As far as most people were concerned the whole business of monoculture, intensive chemical input, massive farms, and hybrids was an unmitigated success — except, of course, for the tens of thousands of farmers who couldn’t keep up.
Environmentalists can be unforgiving. We often bemoan the scandalous behaviors of large corporations, including corporate farms, for their environmentally destructive practices. We judge that they put profit ahead of health (of the ecosystem, of the consumer, of the farm worker). Those who harm the earth need to be called to accountability, just like all of us sinners. But the Gospel requires us to be tolerant, understanding and forgiving. Accusatory judgmentalism that paints some into the role of villain just isn’t an appropriate tool of Christian environmentalists.
We are all in this awful mess together. It will get worse before it gets better. There are no winners unless we all work together. There is no time for judging and condemning, vilifying or demonizing. The grandfather did what he thought best for himself, his family, and even for farming as a profession. In hindsight, he and others did a lot of things we can now regret. His bright young grandson is in a position to recognize those problems and, if he is half as smart as his sister, he will help discover solutions that will, quite likely, heal the earth, return lots of new farmers to the land, and provide healthier farm products to future generations.
I could wish that their grandfather had not bought into the demeaning and hurtful rhetoric that made so many family farmers feel worthless and degraded. I could wish that I had not been quite so quick to accuse the farming industry of intentionally driving many into bankruptcy and poisoning the earth.
Now we are aware of, and are beginning to pay the cost of that achievement. Last generation agriculture is non-sustainable. New solutions are being tried and whole new industries are surfacing to meet challenges. There is something biblical, like an inverse of the Prodigal Son story, about the grandson using the opportunities granted him by his family farm’s wealth to heal the damage done by the well-intentioned grandfather.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)