A meditation on the practical application of Catholic social justice teachings, by Robert Waldrop
Justpeace | Oklahoma Food | Better Times
Yesterday I bought a pig and ten chickens.
Now what does this have to do with Catholic social justice teachings, you may be asking, on this Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?.
Well, as a matter of fact, it has a lot to do with social justice.
No, I'm not going to risk the wrath of a swat team of Oklahoma City code inspectors for secreting a pig and ten chickens just a few blocks from downtown. The raising of the pigs and chickens will be done by farmer Don McGehee and his wife Pam and daughter Heather, who live a couple of miles north of Interstate highway 40 'bout 60 miles east of Oklahoma City. He has 120 acres, which has been in his family since 1916, and it has never had chemical fertilizers or pesticides used on it. His animals have free range pasture, and are not confined in tiny pens.
The McGehee family will raise the pig and then a local custom butcher in Seminole will turn it into sausage, ham, bacon, pork roasts, chops, and etc. It's costing me a dollar a pound live weight for the pig, which will be about 240 pounds after maybe 10 weeks, and it will yield about 160 pounds of meat. I will pay the custom butcher $22 plus 35 cents/pound, hanging weight (that is, just the weight of the meat) to process it, plus another 35 cents/pound for anything that I want smoked and cured, or plus 25 cents/pound for anything I want as sausage.
So I'll be getting the equivalent of a Virginia Smithhouse ham for just a bit more than $2/pound, instead of the typical retail price of $6 to $8/pound.
Now you're thinking I'm turning this message into farmer spam. But there really is a social justice point to all this, and that is that it is a virtue to buy your food directly from a farmer, especially a family such as Don, Pam, and Heather McGehee of Okemah, Oklahoma. Here''s three reasons why this is true.
+ It's good for the small family farmer who owns his own land.
Don't wonder why there are fewer farmers every year. The agricultural marketplaces are seriously distorted to favor large corporate producers and penalize small family farmers. Right now nine cents or less of your grocery dollar goes to farmers. A one pound loaf of bread sends less than a nickle to the farmer who grew the wheat.
If you don't like the implications of that, stop supporting agribizness and start supporting small family farmers. (Also do this if you want better tasting, higher nutritional quality food at a competitive price.)
+ It's good for the consumer.
Besides being the "right thing to do," it is also the best all around economic deal. The product is superior to anything the agrizness industry can produce or your neighborhood supermarket can sell you, and the price is competitive.
I like good ham, but I never buy it because it is so expensive, five or six dollars or more a pound for something resembling a farmer cured ham, and the cheap hams in the supermarket don't even qualify in my humble Farm Bred opinion as "ham". Chemists concocted their flavors in a laboratory, and they haven't got it right yet. But I don't mind at all paying $2/lb for a high quality smoked and cured ham, which comes from a free ranging animal fed a good diet, no antibiotics or growth hormones injected into the animal or pesticides sprayed on the feed, raised by someone who's going to become a friend of my household.
Pork chops in the grocery store start at $2.49 and go upwards from there, and our farmer raised chops will cost us about $1.95/pound. The cheapest supermarket sausage is 99 cents to $1.29, sometimes $1.49, and often it is not very good sausage. We're paying about $2.20/pound, and we the eaters can specify what goes in the sausage (and perhaps as important, what DOESN'T go into the sausage.).
And the quality of what we are buying from farmers or growing ourselves is enormously superior to anything we can buy in a grocery store or even an expensive restaurant. Some people doubt this, I think, but they are people who have never had the opportunity of experiencing what food really should be, or it's been so long they've forgotten what it's like..
There is no lack of evidence about this. Store bought eggs are poor and pale imitations when compared to farmer raised free ranging eggs. When I replaced supermarket eggs with farmer eggs, I discovered that my baked goods were mysteriously beginning to taste more like what I used to get in the kitchens of my grandmothers, Dovie Waldrop and Opal Cassidy, who were among the best cooks Tillman County, Oklahoma has ever produced. I've mentioned in earlier essays and emails the high quality of the beef we purchased in May from the Skelton family who have a ranch in the Oklahoma Panhandle that has been in their family since settlement.
So this picture isn't confusing at all to me. I can use a calculator, and everybody should take me grocery shopping with them because I can find every deal there is in a supermarket (assuming there are any to be found of course, sometimes there aren't). A grocery manager once told me, "If everybody shopped like you, I'd be out of business." But just to spell out my practical point so there's no confusion about the potential benefits to your family:
It is cheaper for me to buy pork (and also beef) directly from a small family farmer than it is for me to buy pork and beef at the local discount supermarket chain store.
And the product is superior than the agribizness product.
+ The animal isn't tortured by its living conditions nor subjected to gratuitous suffering caused by inhumane management practices.
If I hadn't found the Skelton family, I was going to have to become a vegetarian, because I have been coming to an understanding that it is immoral for me to continue financing with my grocery dollars the torture of farm animals by the agribizness corporations. I grew up on a farm, and we had livestock, and this is not the way we treated our animals. It wasn't the way of our grandfathers nor theirs before them fulfilled their stewardship either. I would be ashamed of my entire community if my neighbor treated his animals the way these corporations do in their "Confined Animal Feeding Operations". It is a scandal that these corporate practices are lawful in the state of Oklahoma, or anywhere else.
It is not yielding to animal rights propaganda to ethically and morally object to the way the agribizness corporations are treating the animals that are within their stewardship. Their livestock production practices are in fact objectively evil because they needlessly inflict pain and suffering on living creatures for the purpose of economic gain harnessed in support of gluttony. Those are values of the culture of death, not of the civilization of life and love.
There is no need to cut off the beaks of chickens with hot irons so they don't peck themselves to death due to the misery of an entire life lived in a tiny cage. The way to stop chickens from pecking themselves and each other to death is to NOT make them so miserable that they desire suicide above all things. Is that really so hard to understand?
No livestock practice is morally licit if it induces such unnecessary and gratuitous fear, agony, and suffering on its animal stewardship over their entire lifespans. Show me where this kind of shameful abuse is blessed in the Holy Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the teachings of popes, bishops, and councils. Show me the page, chapter and verse. You can't do it, because it's not there.
The only defense of the CAFO system that can be offered is an atheistic philosophy that admits to no absolute morality, which offers sacrifices and prayers to false economic gods, promotes superstition, and is rooted in gluttony, greed, and covetousness.
What's the price of shifting your grocery dollars from funding predatory animal abusers to supporting responsible producers who are good stewards?
First, note that I am saving money. So one price is extra money in my pocket that I don't have to spend. (Most people won't object to paying that price, or maybe I should say "receiving that refund.".) I do have to do some advance planning, I need the ability to store meat in a freezer (although the hams can hang in a cool room without refrigeration), and I have to pay at least part of the price in advance. I put down $35, and will pay $15/week until the pig is taken to the butcher (about ten weeks in the summer), which goes towards the final price.
Paying in advance is an economic necessity. Rural banks and government programs are loaning money on conventional agriculture, not on harebrained ideas like farmers selling a better product at a lower price directly to the public.
So I also put down $220 to buy a share of his organic vegetable crop, his first subscription sale. If a person doesn't have all the money up front, they can pay a deposit of $35, and then $13.50 a week until the subscription is paid, with totals $251 if paid by the week.
Beginning in July, I'll get a box of vegetables each week, organically grown on the McGehee farm. What's in each week's box depends on what is being harvested, this will continue into the fall. I walked over his fields with him. I saw many signs of good land stewardship, such as contour plowing, terraces, mulch, lots of organic material in the soil. He uses a small Ford tractor that looks like the one owned by my grandfather Glen Waldrop, which was the tractor I rode when I learned to plant cotton. (Or rather, tried to learn, planting in contoured rows is not an easy skill to master.)
Besides the blessing this is for our household table, it also marks the beginning of something important in terms of our Catholic Worker ministry. It is important to help people create their own jobs, microenterprise should be nurtured. This is one of the works of justice, mercy, and peace that we are called to live in a practical manner.
Don McGehee currently has a job in town, and this is their first venture into a subscription farm, a/k/a community supported agriculture. He figures if he gets between 65 to 100 subscribers, depending on how many also want pigs or chickens, he can make a full time living as a farmer on his 120 acres, and can quit his job "in town" (which is making door knobs in a factory).
We're providing what he doesn't have, which is off farm support and contacts. They grow the crops, pigs, and chickens, we have listed them in our Oklahoma Food Guide, and are preparing their brochures. We're giving them a web page at our Oklahoma Food site (their page will be www.oklahomafood.org/pdh.htm ). And we'll also publicize them in the various email forums I participate in that are relevant to the Oklahoma area. Everybody who signs up is invited out to visit with the family. I'm thinking we should have a fall harvest party.
And we'll do the same for anybody else here locally that wants to start something like this. Any small farmer selling direct to the public in the Oklahoma area can have a free web page at our www.oklahomafood.org site, we'll put the page up and update it at their request. It won't be anything fancy, but it will put their information potentially at the reach of every computer user in the area, and will also be included in our periodic printed edition, and it won't cost them a penny.
So that's what I did during the middle part of the day on Saturday. Earlier that morning we delivered 48 bags of groceries here and there about town (people helped, don't think I do all this by myself because I don't, Marcus, Philip, and Lou Ann were there too.)
Yesterday's deliveries pretty much cleaned out the cupboard and the house bank account, so I asked Father Stiefferman to remind folks at the masses this weekend at Epiphany parish that the poor need food and other help in the summer just like they do in the winter. On down the line, we may come to a place where everything we distribute is grown right around here, but until then we are still dependent upon the generosity of Christians to help us do these things. We're hoping that perhaps some folks may be interested in buying a pig or part of a beef, or a share in the McGehee's vegetable crops, or products from other local small farmers, for us to distribute to the poor.
Earlier this week, the Oklahoma Gazette did a two hour interview with me and toured our gardens, taking pictures even, which will be featured in next week's edition (this is our local entertainment/dining weekly, which also functions as the closest thing we have to an "alternative press"). I also gave a practical demonstration to the reporter by serving her a nice salad picked from our former yard, made with 3 kinds of lettuce, buckwheat flowers and leaves, day lily petals, salad burnet, radiccio, sliced green onions, and fresh lovage, thyme, and oregano. The reporter from the Gazette said, "You could pay a lot of money for a salad like this in some restaurants." We had mulberry cobbler for desert made with mulberries picked that morning from our bushes. I'm starting to feel sorry for people who don't have access to such good food.
The focus of the interview was on our developing local food system; the reporter had a copy of our food guide (www.oklahomafood.org) and we also talked about our gardens and permaculture. It seems as though in the providence of God that doors are being opened, and I invite all to be in prayer to Saints Isidore and Maria, patrons of farmers, as we begin this new adventure in our journeying together towards the kingdom.
To get back to the focus for a moment, there are many things that we could debate about the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church, but there can really be no debate about the importance in the political economy described in the teachings of popes, bishops, and councils of the small farm families who own and work their land . The Church considers the presence of a healthy small farm sector to be essential to the well being of the community. In this, the Church's teachings touch closely to something that is very American, and that is Jeffersonian agrarianism. It can also be found in the works of philosophers and writers such as G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, and Peter Maurin.
One of the tragedies of the modern era is that small farmers are being ground into nonexistance by large and relentless economic structures of sin that are fed and encouraged by the daily decisions of millions of people who blindly think that they have no other choice other than to always do what they have always done. The death of the small family farmer is not an accident caused by mysterious economic forces over which we have no control. It's the foreseeable result of a deadly combination of government central bureaucratic planning diktats and corporate greed. It's what we vote for with the economic choices we make in the supermarkets. And it is the wrong thing to do. Considering the situation in the early years of this century, G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Outline of Sanity:
"I have mainly confined myself to answering what I have always found to be the first question, 'What are we to do now?' To that I answer, 'What we must do now is to stop the other people from doing what they are doing now.' The initiative is with the enemy. It is he who is already doing things, and will have done them long before we can begin to do anything, since he has the money, the machinery, the rather mechanical majority, and other things which we have first to gain and then to use. He has nearly completed a monopolist conquest, but not quite; and he can still be hampered and halted."
Every farm bill since the Depression has had as its goal reducing the number of farmers. Ezra Taft Benson, who was the US Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower and who later became the prophet of the Mormon Church, coined the phrase, "Get big or get out."
Our compassionate conservative Republican president has signed a farm bill that subsidizes the destruction of family farms in the United States and in third world countries. It will continue our policy of over production which is driving down prices paid for crops, thereby wreaking havoc and impoverishment on small farmers everywhere. It will destabilize their families and communities, and will drive many off the land at home and abroad. In poor countries those internal refugees will end up in the shanty towns and favelas that surround every third world city. There they provide a growing pool of cheap labor for transnational corporations to exploit. That's what "Get big or get out" means.
Notice how people are always yabbering that American Agriculture Must Feed The World? When you hear someone talking like this, ask yourself, "If US farmers feed the world, what will the billion or so small farmers elsewhere in the world do with their lives?" Why should US production be artificially stimulated by an antimarket subsidy process, that also encourages degradation of the environment (in particular, the catastrophic loss of our topsoil)?
Is the Third World a better place because hundreds of millions of rural villagers have been displaced and driven into cities by such economic imperialisms?
Who's running this ad campaign? It's not organizations of small farmers, obviously, it's the big agribizness transnationals, some of whom are known corporate criminals, among which could be named Archer Daniels Midland. They get pretty much what they want when it comes to farm policy, and it's clear that they think it is fine to use their clout to get policies enacted that impoverish and ruin small farmers across the entire globe as part of their business strategy that requires increased corporate profits. The agribizness corporations are evidently moral sociopaths and their stockholders have the blood of the innocent on their hands. (Why isn't this ever talked about on television?)
G.K. Chesterton wrote, in "Reflections on a Rotten Apple":
"Whether anything more solid can be built again upon a social philosophy of values, there is now no space to discuss at length here; but I am certain that nothing solid can be built on any other philosophy; certainly not upon the utterly unphilosophical philosophy of blind buying and selling; of bullying people into purchasing what they do not want; of making it badly so that they may break it and imagine they want it again; of keeping rubbish in rapid circulation like a dust-storm in a desert; and pretending that you are teaching men to hope, because you do not leave them one intelligent instant in which to despair."
Everybody needs to examine the values which form our economic choices about food. Here are ten things to think about and do, as we consider what the Gospel calls us to in this situation.
1. I invite all to flee this Babylon of corruption and iniquity that we call agribizness which is ruining rural America and creating a holocaust among the small farm communities. You do this first of all by rejecting its culture of death values, an act of faith and grace which must be followed then by a conversion of life and way of living that embraces the ethics of a civilization of life and love.
2. Sometimes the way to build values is by doing things: there are some things we need to start to do, and others that we should stop doing:
+ We must cease paying for the destruction of the family farm and demand that the government stop its policy of driving farmers off the land. The consolidation of agriculture is not and has never been a natural economic process; it has been politically driven and greed motivated from the beginning. We won't like the food system when it is controlled from top to bottom by large corporations, and that is exactly the direction we are headed. It's the wrong way to go.The only way to avoid the train wreck is to shift where we spend our grocery dollars and give the farmers a more fair share of the wealth they create by their labor and expertise.
+ We stop this destruction by looking for local farmers in our own regions and giving them some of our grocery dollars in fair trade. Your area almost certainly already has a basic local food system, you just have to be persistent in your quest for the best. Look for economic transactions that have truth and beauty "embedded" in them and see if that doesn't enhance your quality of life. You'll eat better, you'll spend less money, you'll feel better about what you spend. Is that bad?
3. It will help, both practically and spiritually, if you can grow some of your own food. Just a little bit to start, maybe one tomato plant in a flower bed, or some herbs in a planter in your kitchen. G.K. Chesterton wrote about the virtue of growing some of your own food, in his essay "Reflections on a Rotten Apple":
"God made a world of reason as sure as God made little apples (as the beautiful proverb goes);
and God did not make little apples larger than large apples. It is not true that a man whose apple-tree is loaded with apples will suffer from a want of apples; though he may indulge in a waste of
apples. But if he never looks upon apples as things to eat, but always looks on them as things to
sell, he will really get into another sort of complication; which may end in a sort of contradiction.
If, instead of producing as many apples as he wants, he produces as many apples as
he imagines the whole world wants, with the hope of capturing the trade of the whole world - then he will be either successful or unsuccessful in competing with the man next door who also wants the whole world's trade to himself. Between them, they will produce so many apples that apples in the market will be about as valuable as pebbles on the beach. Thus each of them will find he has very little money in his pocket, with which to go and buy fresh pears at the fruiterer's shop. If he had never expected to get fruit at the fruiterer's shop, but had put up his hand and pulled them off his own tree, his difficulty would never have arisen. It seems simple; but at the root of all apple-trees and apple-growing,
it is really as simple as that."
4. For those who eat meat, it is important that we do business with ethical small farmers who have morals and a sense of responsibility to themselves, and to their community, and to God, for what they do with the vocation they have been given and the livestock of which they are stewards. It's absurd to think of an agribizness corporation, owned by a multitude of anonymous investors, dominated by a mandatory legal structure emphasizing short term profits, as being a responsible steward of livestock. That's why they torture their animals with inhumane and unnatural livestock management practices in the Confined Animal Feeding Operation system: they make more money that way. All of the pain, suffering, and anguish that they cause their animals is completely unnecessary and gratuitous violence. We simply must stop financing the torturing of the animals we eat, and the way to do this is stop buying meat from supermarkets and start buying it directly from ethical and moral local producers.
If you don't believe the CAFO conditions are inhumane and constitute immoral cruelty to animals, go tour one in full production on a hot summer day. I doubt seriously if they will let you inside, and they certainly won't want you to bring a video camera. When you begin smelling the stench, perhaps miles away, you won't want to go in.
5. People should be willing to put up with some small amounts of inconvenience as they learn to navigate their way around a new way of doing food purchases. Less fixation on instant gratification would be very good for almost all of us. The first time you buy beef directly from a farmer, it may seem complicated. The 10th time you do it, it won't seem hard at all, and soon enough you'll wonder why you ever bought agribizness meat in the first place. (Both my grandmothers said that this was true of making pie crust.) A little bit of harmless planning that won't hurt you at all will go a long way in this sector of your household microeconomy. If you know how much food you are going to need, you can make your buying choices accordingly. Saving your grocery receipts for a month and then adding everything up is one simple way to do this.
6. Start by going to a local farmers market, nearly every area has them, but that isn't the end of your journey, it is only the beginning. The Community Supported Agriculture/subscription farm model we are helping the McGehee's develop is the jewel to search for, nurture, and cultivate.
7. Talk to people about this. It is not a lamp to be hid under a basket. Put it out where everybody can see. Tell people, like I did at church this weekend, "I bought a pig on Saturday and ten chickens." That will start a conversation, I guarantee that. This goes forward on the strength of personal conversations and relationships, because nobody is going to hear about this on the television. (Cyberspace is also critical; a multitude of discussion threads about this subject would be a great blessing.)
8. Remember the poor. As you find your way around your own local food system, here's 2 concepts to consider:
+ Buy food directly from farmers to give to the poor. Give it yourself, or donate the food to a local community food security organization.
+ Buy shares in subscription farms for local food banks, send the poor a pig or even two with your compliments and prayers via a local emergency food security organization. There's over 150 Catholic Worker houses in the US these days, any of them will know what to do with your gift. Your gift is thereby magnified seven fold: not only do you give the poor the best food that can be obtained, (remember that offering the best to the poor is always a virtuous thing to do, that goes all the way back to Jesus), but you also in a direct and tangible way support the economic future of the small farm families of this country.
In a similar way, the dollars you presently send to the agribizness system for your daily bread, which are funding the destruction of rural communities, would instead become a significant investment in your neighboring agrarian communities and help preserve this way of life which the Church considers to be of major importance to society.
The demise of the family farmer is a manifestation of the culture of death; the rescue and preservation of the family farmer is a characteristic of the civilization of life and love which we are called by our baptism to build every day of our lives.
9. Help poor people get participate in your developing local food system. For example, organize 16 people to split one full beef, each person would get say 25 or 30 pounds of meat. Or 8 people could be helped to split one pig, with each person getting say 20 pounds of sausage, ham, and bacon. In many states, there are programs that allow food stamps to be spent directly with farmers; there is a WIC program that provides vouchers to pregnant women that can only be spent at farmers markets or on subscription farm programs. These are not universal in all 50 states, they should be encouraged.
10. We must pray about this without ceasing. I especially invite people to pray the Chaplet of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, which can be found at http://www.justpeace.org/cwchaplet.htm for these intentions: Give us this day our daily bread, and may the farmer receive a just return for his contribution to that bread.
The whole world seems to be descending into an orgy of death and destruction. Which of course can only mean that now is the time to radically nurture these alternative structures of beauty and wisdom to counteract the structures of sin which afflict us so desperately.
Procrastination is the enemy of life; faith in action is our vocation. Pakistan and India are on the verge of nuclear war. It's time to throw caution to the wind. Shake things up a bit. FOOD FIRST! Food is much better than nuclear war, this truth is self evident. We build a peaceful world with peaceful actions, even if they seem random and at first sight unconnected with world issues.
Here is the traditional blessing for the cornerstone of a new building, which I found in the document, "With the Blessing of the Church," published in the 1930s by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, a little book of blessings for rural life taken from the traditional Roman Ritual and translated from Latin into English. It seems a fitting way to conclude this essay, sermon, and exhortation to action.
O God, with whom every good thing has its beginning, and through
whom it is improved and increased: grant, we beseech Thee to us
who cry to Thee, that this work, which we are beginning for the
praise of Thy name, may be happily brought to completion through
the neverfailing gift of Thy fatherly wisdom. Through Christ our
Holy Martyrs of Acteal,
in this time of grave world peril,
pray for us.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, help the helpless,
strengthen the fearful, comfort the sorrowful,
bring justice to the poor and peace to all nations.
"Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept
us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season."
From the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City, on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the second day of June 2002, I offer my prayers for all who read this; I am your foolish little brother in the Lord who loves all you very much,
1524 NW 21st
Oklahoma City, OK 73106
"With the Blessing of the Church" is found online at http://www.ewtn.com/library/PRAYER/WITHBLES.TXT . This letter, which may be reprinted and freely forwarded, is found on the internet at http://www.justpeace.org/corpus.htm . Chesterton quotes were taken from the website of the American Chesterton Society, http://www.chesterton.org
Justpeace | Oklahoma Food | Better Times