Farm conference in France emphasizes centrality of “family”

A conference on family farming in the French countryside of Souvigny was held in late February, organized by Journees Paysannes. This Catholic organization is committed to protecting and promoting family farms and rural communities.

We mention this event because it is part of the continuing effort to incorporate a number of different perspectives from the world of agriculture into the Faith, Food and Environment project. One of the organizers of the Journees Paysannes gathering was Michel Thierry-DuPont, who had previously attended the 1st Symposium of Faith, Food and the Environment, held in St. Paul, Minn., this past November.

A second symposium will take place in Milan, Italy, in late June. But before then, symposium organizers are attending gatherings where and when they can. The gathering in France was timely; additional focus group events will take place in the U.S. over the next few months; and international meetings will take place in Rome, besides the one in Milan.

Jim Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, was joined on the France trip by Dr. Christopher Thompson, academic dean of the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity. He is a primary researcher in preparing a final document for the Faith, Food and Environment project, and needless to say international input on the project is essential.

“It’s a resource that’s meant to serve the entire Church,” Ennis said. “So we need to hear from leaders in food production and agriculture from around the world, not just the US.”

At the Journees Paysanne conference, Ennis gave an overview of the Faith, Food & the Environment project to the 100-plus farmers in attendance. Following that, Dr. Thompson provided a compelling account of the connection between the theology of creation and contemporary farming.

Ennis said the presentations were well received. “It was unanimous that a faith-based perspective about food production and the environment would be helpful for farmers,” he said. “The resources to be produced by the end of this year will also suggest practical actions that ensure food for all while caring for creation.”

To make that happen, Ennis and Dr. Thompson solicited the input of Journees Paysannes members so that the resources would respond to their needs. The French farmers who attended the conference were more than willing to share. Breakout discussions and Q&A sessions following the CRL presentations gave attendees the opportunity to discuss the type of resources that might be helpful to family farmers in France.

Ennis says that one of the main points that emerged was the importance of keeping families in farming.

“There’s a long history in France of caring for the land and passing on the farm from one generation to another,” he said. “But families are now feeling intense pressure due to the globalization and industrialization of agriculture. They see young people leaving the rural communities and not returning. There’s also a lot of pressure on small and medium sized family farms to consolidate or sell.”

In spite of these economic challenges, the consensus was clear: family farming keeps an essential human element in agriculture, and those in attendance were committed to protecting and promoting this model.

“How can we continue to pass on the farm to the next generation?” asked Ennis rhetorically. “Those were the questions they were asking and wanted to include in the Faith, Food & the Environment project.”

Another common theme was the loss of a sense of vocation in agriculture. Conference attendees say this needs to be addressed in clear and explicit language in the final set of resources.

“There’s a lack of integration between faith and farming, that in turn has made it difficult for French people living in rural societies to pass on the Catholic faith to their children,” said Ennis. “The document we produce can help to explore how Catholics on the land can pass the faith on to the next generation, as it relates to agriculture.”

For Ennis, the trip emphasized the need to focus on the human element of farming, such as faith and family. In addition to the two-day conference, driving around the French countryside and visiting several farms also made this point clear.

“There’s a pressure to take culture out of agriculture in France. To dehumanize it,” Ennis said. “Yet I saw the very human side of it, the love of the land, the pride they take in their work. I saw the universalism of human nature and of families.”

“There’s a solidarity in this, but there’s also a void and a need for new catechesis on faith and farming. The Faith, Food & the Environment project will help fill that void.”