For many years, the hills and fields surrounding the Shrine of St. Anthony outside Ellicott City, Maryland have been a haven for those seeking a peaceful refuge. Owned by the Franciscan Friars Conventual of Our Lady of the Angels Province, the 310 acres include a grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes and more than two miles of walking trails. Also included is farmland that for many years was leased to a local industrial farmer who used pesticides and fertilizers to support his crops.
In 2015, inspired by the writings of Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), the friars began a slow process of reclaiming and rehabilitating the land, which they dubbed Little Portion Farm.
“At that time, you would go out and dig into the ground, and it was hard as concrete,” says Father Michael Lasky, director of the farm. “It didn’t smell like dirt.”
During the first two years, the friars partnered with the family-owned and organically run Mary’s Land Farm of Howard County, Maryland. They brought cows out to pasture and planted cover crops to increase nutrients and ease the soil back to life.
In the summer of 2019, Lasky invited Matthew Jones to join the effort as the lead farmer. Jones previously worked in environmental advocacy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and had little farming experience. He saw the opportunity as a tangible way to live his values of caring for creation. After a farming training program through an organization called Future Harvest and “a lot of trial and error and a lot of YouTube,” Jones started small, planting 10 beds of vegetables. Since then, the farm has flourished.
“Last I checked, we had something like 45 different fruits and vegetables,” Jones says. “Just in the spring this year, we planted raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Next year, we will plant some blueberries and eventually some fruit trees.”
Jones and Lasky’s goal is to diversify the farm ecosystem while growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for those in need. All the food—grown without pesticides or chemicals—is harvested and donated to the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, which provides meals for unhoused populations and others who are experiencing hunger. Lasky estimates that as of last summer the team has donated more than 23,000 pounds of food to the center. This past spring, the farm partnered with the Sisters of Bon Secours to double the amount of food provided to a food desert in Baltimore.
Jones says he feels a new sense of purpose while working on the farm because it’s a tangible way he can respond to a growing environmental crisis.
“I think you can get paralyzed by the scale of the environmental crisis we’re in, but doing something on this small, local scale makes it more manageable,” he says.
Jones also feels more connected to God and loves that he has developed such an intimate understanding of this small patch of land.
“I experience God frequently through a sense of wonder and awe, recognizing the beauty of an insect on a leaf or the way a plant grows,” he says. “That leads me to gratitude and to a desire to do something in return, to become part of the effort to live more in harmony with creation so we’re not soiling it.”
Jones is not the only person who has found a deeper expression of faith while working the land. A challenge in the modern world, Lasky says, is that people often think of nature as something separate from themselves. He hopes that places such as Little Portion Farm can teach people about sustainability and nature while reminding them of the beauty of God’s creation. The farm is open to visitors every day and has an active group of volunteers.
“We want people to appreciate the colors and what’s happening, to see the beneficial insects and bluebird boxes,” he says. “You can engage through your sight and through your hearing of the bees, the birds, the cows. You can touch the different plants and herbs and maybe peel off a little lavender or oregano. In that sense, it’s about the whole human person engaging the farm and the farm engaging the whole human person.”
Jones and Lasky are not the only Catholics who dedicate themselves to organic farming. Across the country, Catholic farmers find that by taking care of the land they are better able to serve others and connect with God.
Paul and Sara Freid always felt a passion for service. The couple met as college students at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict and learned about the Catholic Worker Movement on a service trip that inspired them to live their faith in action. After graduating and getting married, they moved into the Winona Catholic Worker house, which provides hospitality and support for families experiencing homelessness in southeastern Minnesota.
While reading the writings of Catholic Worker cofounder Peter Maurin, the Freids became interested in his ideas about agronomic universities. Maurin described farming communities in which people could work the land, live intentionally, and—as Dorothy Day writes in a 1979 issue of the Catholic Worker—“regain a sacramental attitude toward life, property, and people in relation to them.” The Freids were fascinated with the concept. They both loved being outside and felt a yearning to reconnect with nature.
I think you can get paralyzed by the scale of the environmental crisis we’re in, but doing something on this small, local scale makes it more manageable.Matthew Jones
“Finding that aspect of the Catholic Worker Movement geared toward this kind of farming was really affirming for us, like, we can do this and still be part of this movement we feel really called to,” Sara says.
In 2007 the couple left Winona and returned to Sara’s hometown of Lake City, Minnesota, where they purchased their own farm. Since then, they have been slowly building an intentional community centered around caring for the Earth. Located on 52 acres, their farm subscribes to sustainable agricultural practices by avoiding pesticides and destructive farming methods.
The farm, called the Lake City Catholic Worker Farm, grows a variety of crops as well as fruit and nut trees. A deep winter greenhouse, built with funding from the University of Minnesota, allows them to grow greens year-round. The Freids humanely raise chickens, goats, and pigs. Much of their produce is donated to support area organizations such as the Lake City Food Shelf and the Minneapolis Catholic Worker Community. The couple, who have three daughters, also started the John the Baptist Beverage Company, an on-site beverage stand where they sell home-brewed kombucha.
Just like in their days at the Winona Catholic Worker house, the family still practices hospitality, welcoming volunteers of all ages and religions as well as people who are experiencing homelessness.
“We welcome everyone as Christ. We don’t judge or ask questions,” Sara says. “We try to welcome people and uphold their dignity.”
By working with their hands, the Freids feel more connected with the natural world and the call to care for creation. By serving others, they are doing their best to uphold human dignity while encouraging others to rethink their own lifestyles and habits.
“We’re raised to think that we use creation—gas is here for us to use, the land is here for us to do what we want with,” Paul says. “So the first step is, when we’re outside, to take moments to recognize that God created this and there’s a sacramentality to everything around us. . . . Just as we grow in our relationship to God and to each other, we also have to grow in our relationship with nature.”
Regina Bambrick-Rust and her husband, John, entered the world of farming gradually. Like the Freids, they were inspired by the Catholic Worker Movement. Prior to starting the White Rose Catholic Worker Farm in La Plata, Missouri in 2014, they lived at the White Rose Catholic Worker house in Chicago for five years.
While at the house, the Bambrick-Rusts developed a passion for environmental justice. They began recycling and making more conscious decisions about how to reduce their waste. That led to composting in their backyard, which led to starting a garden. They became more conscious about reusing items rather than throwing them away. They even started raising chickens.
“For us, it was really step by step,” says Regina. “We would try something new and then still feel called to go deeper. We didn’t want to end at recycling. We wanted to keep going on this journey.”
Regina grew up in rural Indiana and felt a yearning to return to the country, while John felt a call to radically shift his consumption habits to better care for the planet. Both felt a desire to live in a more land- and craft-based society, where people could come together and find dignity in the work of their hands. Eventually, the couple moved to a farming collective where they could leave behind most forms of modern conveniences and live almost entirely off-grid. Their goal was to live a slower, more simple life without a lot of modern distractions.
“Both of us felt this call that this needs to happen, to be more connected with where our basic goods come from, to become not only consumers but also creators,” Regina says.
We didn’t want to end at recycling. We wanted to keep going on this journey.Regina Bambrick-Rust
Living on the farm has given Regina a new perspective on her faith and spirituality. It has opened her eyes to the interconnectedness of the world. Drawing inspiration from the writings of Day and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, she says she has learned to see God in the small things all around her, including in the trees and other plants. Now she takes it more seriously when she sees the environment being treated poorly.
“God is in all these simple acts around us. So when you hear there are chemicals being poured into the plants and they’re going into the river, you start to see the connection and to care more about it,” she says. “It’s not just a thing that’s happening out there.”
She also has a deeper understanding of what it means to live in a community, connected to your neighbors and working toward a common goal.
As part of their work, the Bambrick-Rusts welcome more than 700 visitors a year for classes on permaculture, wild edibles, primitive skills, vegetable canning and preserving, and more. They provide housing for those in need and education about sustainability and social justice causes for anyone who is interested.
“When I think about the Catholic Church at its deepest core, it’s a community of people and humanity and creation working together to be church even in an imperfect way,” Regina says. “That aspect of what it means to be a church and a community of faith feels even deeper and more real because of living on the land and being connected to the reality of what that means.”
Jordan and Jessie Schiele have learned similar lessons about the value of community as part of their work with Jerusalem Farm, an urban community garden and intentional community in Kansas City, Missouri. The Schieles were inspired to start the community after living at Nazareth Farm in West Virginia for nearly three years, seeking simplicity and taking inspiration from Catholic social teaching, the Catholic Worker Movement, and the lives of the saints.
Although not a traditional farm, the Jerusalem Farm community consists of three growing areas all within a block of one another, including an orchard of 24 fruit trees, a backyard filled with 20 raised beds, and a community garden. The team also raises bees and chickens and runs a curbside compost program for which they bike around the neighborhood collecting organic matter to compost as fertilizer. Jordan says the goal of the ministry is to transform lives through service retreat experiences, sustainable living, and home repair for low-income community members. The food that is grown is often shared with neighbors, served at community dinner nights, or preserved for volunteers to eat over the winter.
“We like using the word farm because it signifies a slower pace of life,” he says. “Sometimes in the city you can get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of things. Even in the city, it’s important to be still, take time with your neighbors, cultivate relationships, and cultivate the land.”
We like using the word farm because it signifies a slower pace of life.Jordan Schiele
Jordan believes that working in nature and growing things serve as an antidote for a consumerist society. The Schieles use the gardens as a way to educate others about faith and social justice, including the commercial food systems, the rights of workers, food waste, and the dignity of work.
“Everyone wants to start a community garden, but you really find out who’s dedicated in the middle of July when you’re out there weeding,” Jordan says. “You see that it’s hard work and learn this appreciation that you can’t take these things for granted. We’re so disconnected from our food, where we go to the store and don’t even realize what a gift these things actually are.”
He also enjoys the sense of community he has with his neighbors thanks to the garden. Farming is a “universal language,” he says, that has helped him connect with a wide range of people, including newly arrived refugees.
“Some of these communities are difficult to engage because there’s a language barrier and a trust barrier,” he says. “When you see someone else caring for the land, it helps build trust because you have this similar mindset and that’s a common ground. I think there are common values that are shared when you’re growing food.”
For Eric Fitts and his wife, Colleen, farming has been a countercultural way of expressing their faith. After previously spending time at another intentional farming community, they were part of a group that founded West Virginia’s Bethlehem Farm in 2004.
“We had on our hearts that Colleen and I wanted to live differently,” Eric says. The couple liked working with their hands by farming, carpentering, and canning. They also liked living in a community and believed they could accomplish more with others than they could alone.
Today, the Fitts view their ministry as a mixture of multiple things. They run a working farm and provide home improvement services to members of the local community. They also host more than 400 volunteers a year as part of summer internships and weeklong service retreats.
“We’re not full-time farmers like we’re not full-time carpenters or full-time retreat masters,” Eric says. “We do a lot of things through our mission of transforming lives. We work with local communities to teach about sustainable living and invite volunteers to join us in living simplicity, community, and prayer.”
Eric enjoys being able to live simply while also inspiring and educating others. He hopes that, by working on the farm, people can think more about where their food is from and realize they are meant to be cocreators with God, not just consumers.
Many of us are separated from where we come from and where our food comes from.Eric Fitts
“Many of us are separated from where we come from and where our food comes from. Sometimes we get the idea that our life comes from the next thing we buy on Amazon,” he says. “We see farming as rooting us in who we are called to be and reminding us that we are creatures created by the Creator.”
That ministry of education appeals to Lorrie Heber, director of the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence in the woods of west central Indiana. Similar to Little Portion Farm, the White Violet Center was founded in 1996 in an effort to rehabilitate land that had been previously cultivated with harmful farming techniques. Now the center is home to a five-acre organic garden, a motherhouse, and an alpaca farm.
Heber joined the farm after spending more than two decades behind a desk working in marketing and communications. She says working on the farm has opened her eyes to the interdependent nature of the world in a new way.
“I wish I had done this years sooner,” she says.
While the center is a working farm enterprise, with products sold at the farm store and local farmers markets and restaurants, Heber views most of her work as an educational ministry. The farm hosts virtual and in-person workshops and educational programs about living sustainably. A lengthy internship program allows volunteers to live and work on-site and immerse themselves in the world of sustainable agriculture and organic ministry.
Heber finds it rewarding to share her passion with others. Although not everyone she talks to will become a farmer, she hopes they will make real changes in their own lives and habits, whether it’s by reducing their waste or paying more attention to where their food comes from.
“There’s a satisfaction in knowing the people who come to us may learn a little or learn a lot,” she says. “I think of it like ripples in a pond, knowing they’re going to take this information and hopefully spread it to be that ripple that reaches other people. If the person who comes out for Earth Day learns something and decides they’re going to make one change in their life, that’s rewarding.”
This article also appears in the July 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 7, pages 10-15). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Courtesy of Little Portion Farm