Taking Root: The history and new growth of Catholic Worker farms
"This brings me great joy,” said Chris Montesano, a long-time California farmer, with tears in his eyes. He beamed as he looked upon a room full of Catholic Worker farmers who had traveled from across the country for a recent gathering in Dubuque, Iowa. “We are at a historic moment in our movement’s history,” Montesano declared to the 60 eager listeners. After floundering for decades, Catholic Worker farms are now reclaiming their role at the center of the “Green Revolution” originally proposed by co-founder Peter Maurin.
Eighty years earlier, in 1933, Maurin—short, stocky, ragged and overly didactic with his thick French accent—had been the unlikely answer to Dorothy Day’s prayer for a vocation. Since her conversion to Catholicism in 1927, Day had longed for a synthesis that would reconcile her political radicalism and her newfound religious orthodoxy. For Maurin, Day was the eloquent, practical and thoroughly American companion to translate his idea for a Green Revolution into action. Maurin soon began sharing with the journalist his pithy, free verse writings, which he called “Easy Essays.” Many of these were summaries of books that greatly influenced his ideas, like the 1930 Southern Agrarian tract, I’ll Take My Stand.
The Green Revolution that Maurin proposed was a far cry from the movement of the same name spread by Norman Borlaug in the 1960s. Where the latter emphasized industrialism and synthetic fertilizers, Maurin’s movement harked back to the medieval Irish (hence “green”) monks who had saved civilization during the Dark Ages through their combination of “cult, culture and cultivation” (Maurin’s catchy idiom for worship, study and agriculture). Maurin’s nonviolent revolution centered primarily on creating farming communes where people could integrate the practices of growing organic food, praying together and offering hospitality to wayfarers and the poor in “Christ rooms.” Not wanting to abandon the urban poor, Maurin also advocated the establishment of city houses of hospitality for the homeless (the most wellknown aspect of the Catholic Worker).
Initially, though, the Green Revolution would be fomented by starting a newspaper for disseminating Maurin’s theory. On May Day 1933, Maurin and Day commenced their movement by passing out 3,000 copies of The Catholic Worker. Three years later, joined by a growing number of volunteers, they announced their search for land and financial support with the audacious headline: “To Christ—To The Land!”
On a bright spring day in 1936, a carload of Catholic Workers set out from their house of hospitality amid the paved streets of New York City in search of fertile ground in which to plant the seeds of a new social order. Seventy miles from the city, just outside Easton, Pa., they found a solid prospect: a 28- acre parcel of land overlooking the Delaware River. It was the feast of St. Isidore, patron of farmers, and thanks to a generous donation from a subscriber to The Catholic Worker, these communitarians now had their first farm, which they would name Maryfarm. In a fit of excitement, the driver, Big Dan Orr, threw himself into the grass and shouted ecstatically, “Back to the land!
With good soil, abundant fruits and a sizable asparagus patch, Maryfarm was brimming with promise that spring. The green revolutionaries canned vegetables and fruits, some of which were sent to the breadlines back in the city. They acquired chickens, pigs and a milking cow. They held retreats. They provided a space to rest for the down-and-out. And as they wrote about the developments on the land in the pages of their paper, others found enough encouragement to start their own projects. The pages of The Catholic Worker were filled with news of homesteading projects, successful economic cooperatives and the virtues of rural life.
Over the years, however, life on the handful of farms ebbed and flowed. Often bereft of money, skills, tools and sobriety, the groups were destined to struggle. Reflecting on the problems of the farms in her 1963 book Loaves and Fishes, Day wrote, “We have tried to be all things to all people.” In this part farm and part retreat center, home for the mentally ill and place of recovery for alcoholics, lay monastery and crash pad for the counterculture, their energies were spread too thin. The overwhelming needs of the guests took precedence over the work of farming. They had unwittingly invented a recipe for their own failure. “Our job is to sow,” sighed Day, “future generations will reap the harvest.”
Today the Catholic Worker is reaping that harvest. As the movement celebrates its 80th birthday, it is 180 communities strong, including nearly two dozen farms. Catholic Workers who attempt to make their way to the land have been inspired and aided not only by budding ecological awareness within the broader society, but also by the proliferation of organic farms offering practical apprenticeships. With renewed excitement, Catholic Workers are rediscovering the truth in Maurin’s quip, “Eat what you raise, and raise what you eat.”
Owing largely to Maurin’s insistence that each community in the movement be a dynamic organism, today’s farms represent a diverse spectrum. Peter Maurin Farm, located about 65 miles north of New York, for example, grows staple vegetables for the city houses and offers hospitality to four single men on the land. Strangers and Guests in southwest Iowa resembles an idiosyncratic family farm—selling handmade rugs, growing a large subsistence garden and committing periodic “acts of conscience” against war and the military. Bitterroot Farm in Montana devotes its energies to creating a retreat space for exhausted Catholic Workers. The Mustard Seed Farm, outside of Ames, Iowa, and home of the Catholic Worker Farmer newspaper, splits the fruits of its harvest three ways: among the poor, those who are active in growing the produce and subscribers to their Community Supported Agriculture program.
The New Hope Catholic Worker Farm in eastern Iowa, where I have lived for the past five years, is home to four families who practice ecological sustainability. We spend much of our day engaged in manual labor in order to maintain ourselves. We work in our gardens to grow an array of organic fruits and vegetables, and we tend to the animals that provide us with meat, eggs, milk and wool. We heat our homes with wood from our forest, compost nearly all of our waste and use alternative energies. Inaddition, we are a small educational center, offering a variety of workshops.
Many urban houses of hospitality focused on the works of mercy are now also embodying aspects of Maurin’s land program. Gardens, once considered superfluous in light of the abundance of donated food, are now budding in the yards of most houses, offering an important step to reclaiming healthy food for the poor. Several communities feature backyard chickens. The Cherith Brook community in Kansas City, Mo., to cite one impressive example, not only provides meals for the hungry, offers free showers and engages in ongoing nonviolent resistance to the nearby nuclear weapons manufacturer; it has also transformed the lawn into raised beds for vegetables that they fertilize with composted elephant manure from the local zoo.
A common thread runs through these experiments: Each Catholic Worker community seeks to “create a society where it is easier to be good,” as Maurin liked to say. Each group imperfectly attempts to bring forth the peaceable kingdom, where all relationships—to creation, one another, the poor and the divine—can flourish.
“If only the farms increased as the Houses of Hospitality are doing,” Dorothy Day lamented amid the frenzied buildup for war in 1939, “there would be the beginnings of that social order which is the foundation of peace at home.” Both Day and Maurin longed to see the day when their movement would be more rooted in the land. It is encouraging that today’s Catholic Workers, through change in lifestyle and active protest, are confronting many of the ecological crises of our times: permanent war over distant resources, a fickle climate, technological overload, ongoing topsoil loss, rising food costs and genetically- modified organisms. It is clear that a significant “greening” of the Catholic Worker is underway; but to address the predicament our world faces, we desperately need more people growing food, simplifying their lifestyles, providing hospitality to the marginalized, deepening their spiritual lives and navigating the ways we can live in community with one another. Like the Irish monks of the seventh century, whose way of life helped save the remnants of civilization, perhaps today’s Catholic Worker communities can play a role in the difficult and necessary transformation of our own culture in this time of crisis. During the recent gathering of Catholic Worker farmers, Chris Montesano noted that the first 80 years of the Catholic Worker movement saw the growth of houses of hospitality. He predicts that the next 80 will witness the spread of Catholic Worker farms. Let us hope he is right.