Local Catholic food producers practice care for creation, give thanks for God’s bountiful provision

To be close to creation is to be close to the Creator, Catholic farmers say.

By Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick

 November brings vibrant leaves, litters of pecans on the lawn, cold gusts of wind and a holiday intended to remind us to give thanks for the bountiful harvest God has given us.  Benedict XVI, on the Italian thanksgiving in 2010, urged the faithful to “re-evaluate agriculture” in a way that “development may be sustainable.”  For World Food Day in 2012, he suggested that small farms and agricultural cooperatives lie on this path.  Many Oklahoma Catholics are working to help small farms thrive.

Bob Waldrop, music director at Epiphany Parish in Oklahoma City, co-founded the Oklahoma Food Cooperative to help connect local producers with consumers.  The Coop, celebrating its tenth anniversary this month, operates through a monthly delivery system.  Farmers, ranchers and other producers list their available products—which range from peanut butter and honey to grass-fed beef and in-season vegetables—on the Coop website.  Members select which items they’d like to buy.  On the monthly delivery day, the producers from around the state take these items to be sorted and then delivered to locations throughout the state, where members pick up and pay for their products.  The entire operation runs on a volunteer basis, though volunteers are able to earn food credit for their time.

Waldrop, who grew up in Frederick, Okla., says when he grew up, he “had grass-fed beef and free-range eggs, but no one thought in those terms.” 

He learned more about local food while living in Utah during the 1980s as a “hedonistic pagan.”  He was poor, he says, so he started gardening and began to cook with basic ingredients.  After moving to Oklahoma in the early 1990s, he converted to Catholicism and saw his interest in food dovetail with the Catholic faith.  He attended a food dinner at the Holy Family Catholic Worker in Kansas City, where everything was made with products from the area.  He saw this as a part of the care for creation we are called to by the Church’s social teaching and began searching for ways to make buying local food more convenient.  Eventually, he hit on the idea of a Food Cooperative and met with others who made this a reality.

Clear Creek Monastery, the Benedictine Monastery in the Tulsa Diocese, sells lamb and beef through the Food Coop.  For Brother Joseph, his work with the lambs and the land is part of his vocation in the Benedictine tradition of work and prayer.

Brother Joseph quotes his University of Kansas professor, John Senior, who said, “Knowledge begins with the hands, with a sense of wonder at nature.  In order to learn, we have to first say, ‘Oh, beautiful!’”  Our knowledge of created reality leads us to a greater knowledge of God.

Melissa and Dean Bennett run Guadalupe Oaks Farm just outside the monastery gates in Hulbert, Okla., near a number of other Catholic families who live as much as they can off the land.  The Bennetts began farming with the intent to grow enough to feed themselves; now they sell at the Tahlequah Farmer’s Market, through the Food Coop and from their farm gate.

“We had no big aspirations; we just started taking classes,” Melissa said. “We decided to get just a few chickens.  I love dairy, I love cheese, so a neighbor had some dairy goats, and her teenage daughter taught me how to milk.  It just kind of snowballed.”

Cindy Greenwood runs Greenwood Farms in Big Cabin, with her husband, Gary, where they raise grass-fed beef, free-range hogs, goats, sheep and chickens.  Farming helps her better understand God.

“We kind of look at it like it all blends together, the land and God and everything,” she said. “We couldn’t do the farming without God and the Church.”

Sustainable farming methods practiced by small farms are in line with the Catholic social principle of care for creation, rather than leading to soil erosion and water pollution like practices inherent in industrial agriculture.  Many of these practices of industrial agriculture, such as mechanization, increased reliance on chemical fertilizers and specialization, cut costs in the short term but pose problems long-term for the health of the land and for the health of consumers. 

Small farms and ranches that are able to sell their products to consumers, rather than to food conglomerates and feedlots, are able to make a living off their hard work.  Many large conglomerates such as Tyson-IBP under-pay cattle ranchers to the point that they have a negative return—and boycott any ranches that try to negotiate a fair price.  This practice stands in contrast to the dignity of the worker, reinforced in every Catholic social encyclical.

Though farm work is some of the hardest work there is, it is also immensely rewarding for those who do it.  Dean Bennett says, “When I go to bed at night, man, I’m tuckered out, but there is nothing else I’d rather do.”

His wife Melissa adds “You really feel tied closer to God when you are tied closer to the land.”

Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick is a freelance writer and math tutor living in Oklahoma City.

Where to Get Local Food:

-In your own yard!  Start growing some of your own food, even if it’s just potted herbs

-Local Farmer’s Market

-Oklahoma Food Cooperative

-Earth to Urban and Native Roots in Oklahoma City

- Dodson’s and the Earth in Norman

- Restaurants that serve some local food: Patty Wagon, Tucker’s Onion Burgers, Whiskey Bar, and Ludivine in Oklahoma City; Smoke and Elote Café in Tulsa; Local, Scratch, and the Earth in Norman