The Farm Issue
1974 Annual Conference Statement
Whereas, the Church of the Brethren grew out of the strong soil of farm families; and
Whereas, many Brethren are still farmers and tillers of the soil; and
Whereas, the ferment today speaks of unrest in the farming community due to low prices, high costs, political favoritism to industrial concerns, and the death squeeze of corporate farming; and
Whereas, there is a strong need for consumer education, ecological information, and practical helps to congregations, ministers, and people in fulfilling our Christian commitment as stewards of our environment (soil, air, and water); and
Whereas, many of our youth are looking and moving back to the soil for a fuller expression of their life-styles;
We, the Marion, Ohio, Church of the Brethren, petition the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren through the District of Northern Ohio to study and give future guidance regarding these concerns.
Clyde C. Fry, Moderator;
Bonnie L. Lamb, Clerk
Action of 1972 District Conference
Passed to Annual Conference
Guy R. Buch, Moderator;
William E. Walters, Clerk
Action of the 1973 Annual Conference
The query was referred to the General Board for study and report back to the Conference in 1974.
1974 Report of the General Board
The General Board referred the concern of the query to a study committee on The Church and Agriculture which was already engaged in a serious exploration of the social, ethical and religious aspects of current trends in agriculture and rural life. The Board also assigned to the Committee a resolution requesting support of the United Farm Workers Union boycott of lettuce and California table grapes. Working within this expanded assignment, the Committee developed recommendations on some related issues that may not be explicitly requested in the query.
The meaning of the Board’s report may be clarified further by noting the context of the Committee’s study. Some elements of this context included:
“The Earth is the Lord’s”—Psalm 24:1
“Let the church be present in any situation as a caring community”—Mathai Zachariah
Between 1960 and 1970, America lost family farms at the rate of approximately 100,000 a year. On May 11, 1972, the Wall Street Journal warned, “A way of life is dying.” A senator from the Midwest affirmed, “The statistics on farms lost are disturbing but they do not tell the story of broken families, of hopes crushed or communities destroyed.”
The Church of the Brethren has a deep and enduring relationship to agriculture and rural life. The sharing of food has always been a central concern with us. More than two-thirds of our places of worship are in rural areas. Our fine city churches are to a considerable extent the result of migration from rural places. Today, however, many rural churches are weak; others have closed.
The goal was to assess objectively those trends in American rural life that are of special concern to the Church and to examine systems that are emerging, without pointing the finger of censure toward any person or group. We recognize change as inevitable and necessary; there is no place for return to the past.
Growing out of the recommendations of the Committee, and its deliberation of the total study, the General Board proposes the following responses to the 1973 Conference referral:
I. The Earth Is the Lord’s
“He has made everything beautiful in its time.”—Ecclesiastes 3:11
The Church and the Created Resources of God
The Church by its interest in agriculture and rural life seeks to acknowledge God’s sovereignty as Creator and Sustainer of the physical world. We are told, “The land is mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with me” Leviticus 25:23. In our time a leading churchman, the late Henry C. Early, declared in an Annual Conference address, “The land is not ours; it is only entrusted to us for a season.” The late Liberty Hyde Bailey, Dean of New York State College of Agriculture, has written, “The earth is holy, good, and bountiful because God created it so.”
What a remarkable gift is the soil! We are told that one cubic inch of moist, fertile soil contains as many forms of life as there are people in the world. With good care the soil renews itself so it can go on producing food generation after generation.
The Use of Air, Land, and Water
When our ancestors came to the land of the American Indian, it was a land of blue skies, pure air and clear, flowing streams. The land was rich in natural resources that seemed inexhaustible. The words ecology and pollution were hardly known.
We soon became a pioneering people. But there developed an economy that depended too largely on the exploitation of resources, bigger and bigger motor cars, and built-in obsolescence and waste. The land that God entrusted to us has become littered with garbage and trash. The air and water are polluted. Last year 41 million dead fish were picked up along our streams and lakes. Long ago the Prophet declared, “And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and good things, but when you came you defiled my land” Jeremiah 2:7. There is still time but the Church must do its part toward the custody of resources that God has created for all.
We offer recommendations here and in later sections because they have been requested. We hope they will be regarded not as dogmatic statements, but as our studied opinions. With this in mind we recommend:
To the Government that:
- the Environmental Protection Agency be commended for the progress it has made the past three years in establishing minimum standards for the purity of air and water, garbage dumping, sewage disposal, noise control, and education.
- in efforts to meet the “energy crisis,” we avoid curbing the Environmental Protection Agency’s work just as far as possible.
- strip mining be rigidly controlled and regulated to protect the land and the people who live on it or from it and that responsibility for reclamation of strip-mined lands be placed with the Environmental Protection Agency.
- research be strengthened to explore the utilization of sources of energy, especially solar energy, wind, and ocean waves.
- there be developed a nationwide educational effort through citizens’ groups, schools, and churches to cultivate pride in conservation and clean environment.
- a panel of prestigious private persons be named by Congress to:
- examine our priorities in industry, and in the use of technology for reducing waste of resources—thus turning toward new values of conservation and the enrichment of life for all.
- reconsider and update the flood control system based on occasional flooding of productive crop land by the use of dry dams.
- suggest using other criteria in addition to Gross National Product (G.N.P.) for measuring growth, so as to encourage profit sharing in industry, economical and fair distribution of goods, and the re-education of consumers and producers; indeed, to focus more on quality of life for all.
To the Church that:
- we restudy the doctrine of creation in order to better understand God’s ongoing purpose in our time.
- we pledge our compliance and support for all appropriate efforts for conservation and clean environment.
- we pursue an educational effort for the stewardship of resources and material goods—using our literature, youth camps, and discussion groups to create an awareness that waste and over-consumption may deprive others of the bare necessities of life.
- we review our heritage of “the simple life” and seek to translate it into values and patterns for present day living.
II. Who Should Control Farming?
“Land is a precious and finite resource and the birthright of the people. Its ownership and control must be widely distributed.”—National Land Reform Conference, 1973
The Family Farm
The General Board shares fully the concern for the future of the family farm, as expressed in the query. This concern is widespread. In its September 1972 issue the Farm Journal featured an editorial on “Who Will Control Agriculture?” In the year 1970 agricultural economists of twelve Midwest agricultural colleges conducted a study based on this concern. Groups of farmers welcomed the opportunity to meet and discuss this and related issues with us.
A new and major topic among farmers and other rural leaders is land reform. It is ironic that we insist on land reform in the countries where we extend economic aid while we ourselves have no land policy. Instead, we are drifting on the same course that brought poverty and political instability to the “underdeveloped” countries.
Important questions arise. Are those who speak out only alarmists? Why are so many farms being lost? What are the implications of land concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people? Can the ideal of Jefferson and others for widespread ownership of land be preserved in our time? What should be the role of the Church where so many homes, people and rural institutions are involved? (The Study Committee has tried to answer some of these questions in the booklet, This Land: Ours for a Season.)
The Growth and Impact of Corporate Farming
For many years there have been a number of large corporate farms in the United States. Some of them have shown a wholesome interest in rural community life. There would appear to be a place for such farms. However, from 1950 to 1970, certain commercial firms were transferring their profits from oil, steel and chemicals into agriculture at an accelerating rate. One oil firm has acquired 1.7 million acres of land in several states. The firm manufactures its own fertilizers, farm machinery, containers, etc. Its policy is “from seed in the ground to the supermarket.” This creates a form of competition that is hard for family farmers to meet. In California 6 percent of the farms control 75 percent of the farm area. Where this occurs it raises questions because of its impact on family farming and the life of rural institutions.
Why this sudden interest of giant industry in farming? This question was seriously explored, and these recommendations are offered:
To the Government that:
- the present efforts to revise the price support and soil bank payments should focus on getting such help to those who actually need it, by defining more clearly who is a farmer, and allocating subsidy payments, research, credit and other services on that basis.
- there be established by Congress a nonpartisan COMMISSION ON RURAL DEVELOPMENT to:
- examine and suggest ways of dealing with causal factors in today’s rural inequities and maladjustments.
- assist in better coordinating the many scattered and piecemeal projects for rural development we now have.
- evaluate the political and social cost of unrestricted entry of industrial power and capital into agriculture.
- funds and staff be provided for implementing the Rural Development Act and the Family Farm Act of 1972 which we understand are designed to: “revitalize and develop rural communities, improve the quality of life, and stem the tide of migration from farms and villages, which leaves our rural communities deserted and our cities overcrowded.”
- the Federal Extension Service be strengthened so as to provide assistance especially designed to enable small farmers and share tenants who wish to continue in farming, to become more efficient.
- research by the land-grant colleges and extension services include efforts to develop equipment more applicable to the needs of small operators, and explore the possibilities of middle technology as used in Europe and Japan.
- we begin as soon as possible to develop a land reform policy and program. Priorities would be:
- making land available at moderate prices to those who need it for tillage and homesteads.
- develop means for regulating the entry into farming by corporate and industrial enterprises.
- a policy for disposal and use of public lands in accord with wide public interest.
- attention to the interests of those calling for community land trusts.
- a graduated land tax designed to discourage the accumulation of abnormally large holdings.
To Farmers that:
- they continue their rich contribution to American life and recognize their unique position as custodians of the soil and rural environment.
- they make more use of extension services and other available information in areas such as management, research, record analysis, etc.
- local cooperatives and collective bargaining organizations presently in operation be supported and strengthened and, where necessary, organized to assist with low-cost housing, credit and marketing.
- they consider sharing ownership and use of expensive machinery.
- conscious effort be made to maintain and strengthen the heritage and tradition of the family farm:
- by working out partnership arrangements with interested young people.
- by arranging for the passing on of farm property while the family is still young, so that an opportunity for ownership might be a part of the growing years.
To the Church that:
- the General Board consider assigning responsibility to an appropriate staff member to assist the churches, our seminary and our colleges, in developing an informed awareness and sensitivity to the rural issues that are shaping the lives of millions of people and of so many local churches.
- the General Board consider lending a larger portion of its investment funds for projects of development in rural areas.
- it pursue a more deeply studied policy for rural church life and ministry in strategic areas. This might include:
- a unit on current rural and agricultural issues as a part of the training of ministers.
- study seminars in churches and young people’s camps.
- an occasional address or feature program at Annual and District Conferences.
- well-studied articles appearing periodically in our church publications.
- wherever feasible there be a group in the local church to assist persons who wish to become established on the land or in other rural occupations.
- members having funds to invest, consult appropriate Brotherhood staff about places for investing in low-cost housing, land, or other development projects.
III. The Case of Growers, Crew Leaders, and Farm Workers
“If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him … let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.”—1 John 3:17-18
We hear much today about grower-farm worker conflicts and a labor system that seems to have engulfed both growers and farm workers. All major religious faiths are concerned. Some clergymen are giving their full time to this.
We owe much to growers who provide for us a rich supply of quality fruits and vegetables at a moderate cost. They do this by hard work and taking risks such as frost, flood, plant diseases, insect pests and falling prices. We realize that many growers aim to treat their workers well. However, we as consumers have been silent under a system that tends to exploit people and blight their lives. The University of Florida Law Review, after an objective study of the migrant farm worker situation, has concluded:
“The most economically and socially deprived segment of the population in the United States consists of those persons generally referred to as migrant farm workers. There are approximately 276,000 adult male migrant workers in the United States. Including women and children there are around one million people who migrate.”
These people are caught in a system that is subject to many abuses such as poor housing, lack of education, inadequate health services, and exploitation by crew leaders.
For more than thirty years farm workers have been striving to form an organization as a means for collective bargaining, in order to improve their working and living conditions. They desire most of all to liberate themselves from the crew leader system and other injustices that occur because they are a weak and scattered people without power to bargain collectively. Currently using nonviolent methods, their dedicated leader Cesar Chavez is leading them in a renewed effort for liberation. What should be the role of the Church toward the efforts of these people in their struggle?
These are our recommendations:
To Government that:
- there be published a summary of legislation enacted in behalf of the farm workers.
- support and staff be provided to enforce laws already in existence in regard to housing, minimum wages, schooling for children, and registration and regulation of crew leaders.
- new laws be enacted to provide for farm workers the minimum wage standards and unemployment protection that are available to most industrial workers.
- farm workers be given a voice in the administration of welfare programs so that these programs become a means for rehabilitation and human development rather than demeaning handouts from the rich to the poor.
- farm workers be given the right to free ballot elections to determine who will be representing them in collective bargaining.
To Growers that:
- both growers and farm workers recognize the need for improvement in management-labor relations and for collective bargaining in good faith.
- the crew leader system be recognized as outdated and be replaced by direct negotiation with workers.
- they seek to educate the general public as to their own problems and those of the workers, instead of spending large sums to curb the organization and the rise of farm workers.
- growers seek ways to use their unique position and power to help improve a situation whose solution will be to the advantage of all.
To Farm Workers that:
- in local areas they take constructive measures to present their problems to the general public, using the press, television and radio.
- they participate in cooperative associations for credit, education, housing, and more stable employment.
- wherever grower-worker contracts exist, farm workers should make every possible effort for prompt and efficient servicing.
- workers in collective bargaining refrain from efforts to prevent farm families and operators from working on their own farm.
To the Church that:
- efforts be made to acquaint members with the problems of growers, farm workers and their own responsibilities as consumers.
- members support the enactment and enforcement of legislation to provide for farm workers the same standards of safety, wages, employment insurance and other services that are available to other workers.
- it provide qualified volunteers and more adequate financial support to ministries for self-development of farm and migrant workers.
- it support local projects such as housing, credit unions, training, and employment opportunities for families wishing to settle out of the migrant stream.
- its members consider seriously and prayerfully whether they can use the products of producers who reject collective bargaining relationships with any bona fide association of farm workers.
- it commend farm workers, growers and owners committed to nonviolence in their struggle for justice.
- where relief supplies are given, they be given in response to an emergency need, and as far as possible, in cooperation with agencies of farm workers.
- its members and congregations develop effective ways to relate to farm workers when they come into the community; and make sure that our churches, schools, and other institutions are open to them.
IV. The Rise of Alternative Ways of Life
“Let no one despise your youth.”—1 Timothy 4:12
In our view the interest in alternative ways of life is genuine, dedicated, and more widespread than generally realized. There is, of course, wide variation in the forms of organization, purpose and degree of discipline.
The Study Committee on The Church and Agriculture sought answers to questions like:
- Who are these people?
- Where are the societies or fellowships?
- Why do they form a new pattern rather than remain within the Church and within the present social and economic system?
- What are the results or fulfillments of purpose so far?
- What difficulties do they encounter?
- What are their long-range plans or objectives?
- What is their future?
The replies to these questions are found in the study booklet, This Land: Ours for a Season. Such communities are not the one and only way of life. Nor can we predict how far they may go or how long they may endure. However, we can hope that these creative and dedicated groups will remain as a challenging and leavening influence.
We Recommend to the Church that:
- the General Board arrange a plan for free communication with those participating in alternative life-styles.
- where a group of people wish to form a church-related rural community, ways be considered for assisting them in the securing of land and other resources.
- special attention be given to encouraging and assisting young people who wish to locate on land or take up life in a rural community. People with land to will, might consider some of the worthy people searching for land, rather than giving it to those who may not need it.
- as we look deeply into our church life, we as local congregations be concerned to learn why people turn away from the present church style toward a new and to them a more challenging way of life.
Ira B. Peters, Chairman
S. Loren Bowman, Secretary
Action of 1974 Annual Conference
The report was presented by Ira Peters, chairman of the General Board, and I. W. Moomaw, secretary of the special committee established by the Board to study this issue. The report was adopted with one amendment which is incorporated in the above writing of the report.