Farms have been central to the Catholic Worker movement since its inception in 1933, and while the movement may have fallen off the radar to some extent, it still exists.
In fact, the farms have undergone a resurgence the past few years, according to Mike Miles of Anathoth Community Farm near Luck, which will host the Catholic Worker National Farm Gathering Feb. 15-17.
The Polk County farm will host the event, along with a half-dozen Catholic Worker farmers.
“The retreat is not only for farmers but for everyone who eats and is concerned that industrial agriculture has been so damaging to our collective health and our future on the earth,” said Miles, who with his wife, Barb Kass, started Anathoth Community Farm more than 30 years ago.
Miles said he became involved with the movement in 1976 while cooking for a soup kitchen in Chicago, where he was attending seminary.
“We saw land-based communities as the future of the movement, which is actually getting back to its roots (of) when it was founded in 1933. It originally was a response to the Great Depression and was meant to create communities where ‘scholars could become workers and workers become scholars,’” he said.
With four farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Upper Midwest is home to one of the largest concentrations of Catholic Worker farms in the U.S., he said. There are at least 20 self-identified farms nationwide and around the world.
The Catholic Worker movement was founded during the Great Depression by journalist Dorothy Day, at the urging of Peter Maurin. Best known for its houses of hospitality in rundown areas of large cities, many Catholic Worker centers, offering food, clothing, shelter and more to those in need, also exist in rural areas.
Beyond hospitality, Catholic Worker communities are known for their activity in support of labor unions, human rights, cooperatives and the development of a nonviolent culture.
Maurin’s vision for the Catholic Worker movement included farms that he called “agronomic universities.” These early efforts were not often successful, according to the Catholic Worker website.
Decades later, Miles said, the farms are being redefined by the “failure of industrial agriculture to produce nutritious, safe food” and the need to regenerate the soils and watersheds. Maurin’s “Green Revolution” is a growing reality in the Catholic Worker movement, according to their website.
The National Farm Gathering will begin with dinner the evening of Friday, Feb. 15. Saturday will include presentations by Miles and Shay O’Toole, discussion, an afternoon roundtable and an optional farm tour. Dinner and folk dancing will round out the day. Sunday will open with prayer, breakfast and a church service, followed by afternoon roundtables and a talent show. The event will close with breakfast on Monday, Feb. 18.
Miles said they will discuss how Catholic Worker farms need to respond to pressing issues facing agriculture such as climate change, the “failure of industrial agriculture” and how small farms are feeding the world, the environmental and nutritional benefits of agro-ecological practices, the importance of consumer power, getting young farmers onto the land and more.
“The Catholic Worker movement is a personalist safety net to poverty. It involves individuals, communities and churches stepping up to feed, clothe and house poor, displaced people,” Miles said. “It will be around as long as poor people continue to fall through the cracks in the systems that are supposed to be there doing the work.
“The failure of farm policy and industrial agriculture are going to demand that something like a new version of the Homestead Act put people back on the land, on smaller acreages to do hands-on management utilizing biological farming practices,” he said.
He said the past three national gatherings have drawn about 65 people for the weekend, plus locals dropping in. People have come from all over the U.S., from New York to California and Montana to Missouri, but mostly from the Upper Midwest.
The event was held in Platteville in 2017, Luck in 2015 and Dubuque, Iowa, in 2013.