Rural Community in Crisis

1985 Church of the Brethren Resolution

Whereas, land is central to God’s covenant with people, central to the shaping of human community, and central to justice among all peoples who dwell on earth;

And Whereas, caring for and living in harmony with the land have been important callings for the people of God;

And Whereas, belief in Christ as the bearer of the new creation mandates the people of God to take with divine seriousness the care of the land;

And Whereas, the biblical demand for justice and the rightful payment of just reward impels us to speak out and act on behalf of those who work the land;

And Whereas, the interaction between people and land is among the most basic relationships in our society;

And Whereas, agriculture is experiencing a major economic crisis, devastating some farm families, small businesses, banks and entire rural communities;

And Whereas, this rural crisis seriously affects our urban areas by decreasing employment opportunities and depressing economic development;

And Whereas, a stable farm economy is essential for the health of our national economy for an adequate supply of food for us and for world food security;

And Whereas, family farms* are being forced into foreclosure at a Depression-era rate;

And Whereas, the ownership of farmland by minorities is declining at such a pace that none may exist after the end of this decade.

Therefore, the 199th recorded Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, July 2-7, 1985

Builds upon the actions of Annual Conferences on issues relating to food, farming, and land over the past decades;

Commends to the entire church continuing action on those major farm policy goals addressed by the 188th Annual Conference in 1974; and

Affirms the following principles as basic to the concept of the family farm:

—Ownership of agricultural land should be widespread to assure both a democratic character to rural communities and the careful use of agricultural resources.

—Farming should provide a meaningful opportunity to earn a decent living.

—Owning farmland for speculative purposes should be discouraged.

—Stewardship of natural resources is both a legitimate public policy objective and a responsibility of land ownership. Therefore, the public should support efforts to protect the land as the common heritage of humankind, and farmers should practice soil conservation.

As a community of faith, we are called to recover our own vision of justice and community in this time of rural crisis. We are also called to respond whenever and wherever we see people hurting, injustices perpetrated, and communities fractured. We recognize that the rural crisis that grips people and communities across the nation poses extraordinary consequences for our entire society.

We, therefore recommend:

That the General Board

  1. Review the recommendations of the 1974 Annual Conference statement on the Church and Farm Issues regarding staffing and investments in light of the severity of the rural crisis.

That the Pension Board

  1. Consider including in its investment guidelines the concerns for family farm and land ownership.

That Congregations and Districts

  1. Heighten their commitment to be caring communities of God’s people, being present to all who are hurting, listening in non-judgmental ways, seeking understanding and empathy, organizing support groups, and offering practical assistance such as financial support for farm families to obtain professional counselling for stress management, marital and family tensions and/or financial management.
  2. Support the pastor in providing spiritual counsel and practical assistance.
  3. Take the lead in organizing emergency responses to material needs in rural communities and offer, where appropriate and feasible, food purchases, or health insurance premiums.
  4. Participate actively in ecumenical groups organized to bring rural, city, and suburban churches together with others to address this crisis and seek long-term solutions.<
  5. Provide increased leadership and support for:

—crisis counselling, hotline advocacy programs, and forums for sharing hurts and struggles within local communities and in the larger regional setting;

—organizations and coalitions that are committed to the preservation and vitality of family farm agriculture in the US and that share the polity goals of the church;

—local, state, and national ecumenical programs that assist rural families in crisis, and that strive to change state and national policies by enhancing family farm agriculture;

—programs, projects and organizations seeking to stop the loss of minority-owned land in the US and enhance opportunities for minority farmers to earn a livelihood from agriculture.

6. Review land and investment holdings in terms of their potential for supporting the needs and survival of farm families, including:

—the use, rental, and transfer of church-owned land for purposes of family farming operations;

—the use of church investment fund for deposits in banks in rural areas hard-hit by the economic crisis, with lower interest loans made to area farmers by the cooperating bank, and lower return to the church-investor making the deposit.

That State Governments

  1. Undertake studies to determine if state tax policies are having adverse effect on family farm ownership, and act to distribute tax burdens more equitably in proportion to income.
  2. Develop and enact laws to prohibit the acquisition of farmland by corporate or other non-farm investors. In states where such laws already exist, every effort be made to retain and strengthen those laws, especially during this period of falling farmland values.
  3. Enact farm foreclosure moratorium laws for the duration of the farm crisis on both real estate and personal property.
  4. Establish through legislation a family farm development fund to provide low interest loans to young beginning farmers. (Such a fund has been enacted in Iowa.)
  5. Preserve remaining farmland by (1) publishing guidelines to help local governments protect agricultural land, (2) mapping farmland that the state believes should be protected from development, and (3) identifying Class I and Class II soils that are crucial to the agricultural capabilities of the state.
  6. Expand local markets for fruits and vegetables by providing direct market information and training activities to small growers.

That the Federal Governmentthrough reforms in the 1985 Farm Bill and other policy changes:

  1. Establish as a major priority of farm programs the support of family-owned and operated moderate-sized farms.
  2. Reduce radically the number of farm bankruptcies by making funds available for restructuring farm debts of moderate-sized farms and establishing realistic levels of repayment.
  3. Revise tax policies that now attract agricultural investment by non-farmers seeking tax shelters, and that disproportionately benefit large and well-financed farming operations.
  4. Correct the inequitable distribution of benefits in farm programs by limiting eligibility for subsidized credit and support payments to moderate-sized farms.
  5. Strengthen Congressional oversight of the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) to ensure that the FmHA carries out its historic role and mandate as a lender of last resort and as an aid to beginning farmers making initial land purchases and to further ensure that the limits on loans meet the needs of moderate sized farms.
  6. Ensure that farm borrowers through the Farm Credit System are fully informed of their rights to loan servicing options, and that the beginning farmer loan programs within the Farm Credit System are strengthened and geared toward minority landowner participation.
  7. Require through legislation that all federally-supported programs of agricultural research and education focus on small and moderate-sized family farm operations, and that such programs be especially targeted to minority farmers and landowners in those areas where they constitute a significant proportion of the population.
  8. Provide new research initiatives and programs that assure the development of long-term, sustainable agriculture in the United States, protect the natural resource base from further loss and contamination, and provide small and moderate-sized family farmers the opportunity to make a good living from the land.

At the very heart of the crisis of our nation’s agricultural system is a disturbing moral and political issue: Who will control the land? As a church, we have been concerned about concentration of land control in the Third World but we have often failed to see the problem in our own backyard.

The Church is called to action in rural America—action based both on its biblical understandings of land and liberation, and on its understandings of the socio-economic and political realities of life today. Our response to the present situation calls for sensitivity to the moral significance of the crisis—a crisis that not only involves the food necessary for life and the land and water needed to produce that food, but the way of life of the people who make the land productive, in this generation and for future generations.

*Family farm is understood in this resolution as an agricultural production unit in which the management, economic risk, and most of the labor are provided by a given family. It is also understood to mean a farm operated by persons who are striving to earn a majority of their livelihood from that operation. It is defined not in terms of acreage or volume of production but of independent entrepreneurship.

Action of the General Board, June 1985

Voted that the General Board recommend to the Annual Conference, through the Standing Committee, the adoption of this resolution. It also requests the Moderator to communicate the resolution to the Congress, the President, and the Secretary of Agriculture of the United States, and to the Governor and the Secretary of Agriculture of every state, drawing attention to the provisions that are particularly applicable. It further urges that congregations and districts share the resolution widely with legislators and in ecumenical and community forums.

Elaine M. Sollenberger, Chair
Robert W. Neff, General Secretary

Action of 1985 Annual Conference

Joseph Hoffert, the Standing Committee delegate from the Northern Plains District, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that Annual Conference adopt the Resolution on Rural Community Crisis. The Resolution was adopted by the delegates with three amendments which are incorporated in the preceding wording of the text. The moderator accepted the request to communicate the resolution to the appropriate authorities indicated in the action of the General Board.