Introduction: To Till and to Keep

“Give us this day our daily bread.” (Mt. 6:11)

To all those who labor in order to produce “our daily bread,” to all those who work to provide nourishing food for the human family – farmers, harvesters, ranchers, food processors, marketers, and distributors – to each and every one of you, the Church extends its deepest expressions of gratitude and esteem for the noble work of feeding the human family of God.

All of our food, indeed all that nourishes us, comes first from our heavenly Father through the gift of the earth and then through the work of human hands. On this fundamental point we cannot be mistaken: every good gift, including our daily sustenance, is from the Father above who also wills to bring us to new birth with a word spoken in truth (James 1:16-18).

The farmer, therefore, holds a crucial place in the common family of man and a unique role in the fulfillment of God’s plan. For through their determined labor, those who work in agriculture cooperate with divine providence and make manifest God’s care for each one of his children. Their work is not merely an effort to meet a basic human necessity. Nor is it purely an economic endeavor, reducible to questions solely of profit and cost. Instead, at its core, the commitment to agriculture is a vocation given by God, a unique and privileged way of life. Indeed, of all the occupations undertaken by men and women, the task of “tilling and keeping the earth” and “feeding those who hunger” reaches to the depths of our relationships with God the Creator, with creation and with all of humanity.

The origins of the vocation of the farmer (and all who tend to food and fiber) extend to the foundations of the human community, the “pre-history” of the sacred Scriptures, when Genesis records the moment when God placed man and woman in the garden in order to till it and keep it (Gen. 2:15). The vocation to care for the earth and to bring forth its fruits emerges from the original condition of man within Creation. This privileged way of life precedes the trauma of original sin and provides an insight into the place of the human person within the broader order of creation. From the very beginning, whether through the cultivation of its fruits, the preservation of its lands or the contemplation of its beauty, man finds in his engagement with creation, an encounter with the Creator Himself. “For the heavens declare the glory of the Lord,” (Ps. 19.1) and through these created realities, we can discern the wisdom of the Creator at work (Rm. 1:20). Like every gift from God, creation itself shows us something of the Creator, his Wisdom and Provident care.

The Focus of this Reflection: Agricultural Leadership

We employ the term “agricultural leader” in a broad sense, recognizing that the variety of situations around the world will call for unique insights about its meaning and significance. For agricultural activity is not solely concerned with the production of food, even if this constitutes the central expression. Rather, agriculture takes place in a context of social, cultural and ecological activities. Whether as a farm leader in the local community or a corporate executive participating in the global economy, everyone involved in agriculture contributes to the common good of the human family, meets a fundamental need for nutritious food on a daily basis, and draws from the earth the resources it is destined by Providence to yield. An agricultural leader, in this context, is simply someone who recognizes and affirms the responsibilities they have toward others and to God and creation. We seek to engage the range of occupations and professions encompassing the broad sectors of agriculture and food production, including farm organizations and agribusinesses, farmworker organizations, regional and national policy arenas, academia and research groups, nutrition advocates, and rural community leaders. Agricultural leaders are found all along the “food chain” that stretches from agricultural inputs to food production and distribution, including those who set policies or create the conditions for a safe, productive and viable food system.

Agricultural leaders understand the forces acting on farmers and livestock producers: the rising expense of inputs and services needed to operate a farm; the concentrated number of agri-food processors to which producers sell their harvest or livestock. The more comprehensive agricultural leaders look all the way to the end of the food chain: grocery stores and restaurants, supermarket chains and consumers themselves. They ponder over the food wasted along the way and how to curtail such losses. The more earnest leaders join larger efforts to help vulnerable groups of people to obtain safe and nutritious food, whether within their local communities or in worldwide efforts to end the scourge of hunger. In their own integral and creative ways, agricultural leaders work to balance economic, ecological and social demands.

Leadership implies integrity and a distinguished level of professional performance. There is a sense of aspiration at the center of one’s life in carrying forth a vocation in agriculture. Just as one is ‘called’ to a certain task in life, one must also ‘profess’ or ‘witness’ to the truth. Our purpose in this reflection, therefore, is to serve as a spiritual guide for agricultural leaders, especially in affirming the dignity of the farmer and the farmworker, and committing themselves to affirming the integrity of all creation. We cannot emphasize enough an integral concern for the earth in its biodiversity while also respecting all those who work the land and live close to it.

Just as farmers see their work as a vocation, agricultural leaders are called to see they are part of this vocational work, a form of life through which God can be served and glorified. We share in the perspective of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, The Vocation of the Business Leader, when it states:

“Business leaders who do not see themselves serving others and God in their working lives will fill the void of purpose with a less worthy substitute. The divided life is not unified or integrated: it is fundamentally disordered, and thus fails to live up to God’s call.”[1]

We believe it is essential – especially in this age of secularization and the temptation to neglect God – to encourage a deeper reflection upon agriculture as a vocation, and the responsibilities this implies. In his most recent encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls each of us to a profound interior conversion, and to recognize that our encounter with Jesus Christ impacts our relationships with the world around us. “Living our vocations to be protectors of God’s handiwork,” he says, “is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (LS §217). His encyclical provides many of the insights for this document and establishes the context from which these reflections emerge.

We envision this document to be used as a prompt for prayerful reflection on the responsibilities of the agricultural leader who, in turn, helps all of us to understand our relationship to the earth and one another better. Each section begins with a passage from the Sacred Scriptures, and then a question to prompt further thinking. We hope that this document encourages the agricultural leader to enter more fully into a spirit of discernment, confident that “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” (James 1:5)

The Original Vocation: “To till and to keep.”

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15)

At the heart of an integral or complete agriculture lies the theology of creation, the theology of the earth as a gift given by a loving Creator. The land is not a blank slate, a meaningless void, merely waiting for human beings to impose their design upon it. Rather, the entire order of creation, from the lowliest creatures up to humankind, is permeated by God’s loving design. Agricultural life unfolds within His plan. In particular, the farmer who attends to the soil enters into a relationship with God, an order of creation that is itself already intelligently ordered through Him. One ignores the order of reality at the risk of one’s own peril, as the farmer’s practical wisdom must submit to the divine plan that lies hidden in the order of things. Far from undermining one’s confidence in the delicate fabric of nature’s intricacy, contemporary science affirms an incredibly rich fabric of living creatures that constitute the soil itself, pointing to the elaborate harmony within a hierarchy of living creatures.

The agricultural leader has the special mission to bear witness to the Creator. Inspired by a humble faith in the Creator, the leader exercises a prudential stewardship in accordance with the natural law. Whether in the field, food processing factory, or agribusiness boardroom, the agricultural leader has the responsibility to respect the principles of morality and the created nature of things. By responding to the first vocation of humankind to till and to keep the earth and by living humbly before God, the agricultural leader is more than a mere economic agent of production; rather, the leader plays a critical role in creating an authentic culture of life. Precisely because of his responsibility “to till and to keep” the earth, the agricultural leader “must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world.” (LS §68)

Preferential Regard for Family, Women, Peasant Farmers & Farmworkers

“But 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?” (1 John 3:17)

Agricultural production unfolds within a community, a network of social relations that often extends beyond the immediate horizon of one’s awareness. Agricultural leadership, then, must recognize the dignity and contributions of every member involved in fieldwork and food production and include the legitimate contributions of those who historically have been excluded. By viewing the practice of agriculture as a vocation with social and ethical dimensions, we know that the horizon of concern ought to extend as broadly as possible. The agricultural leader is responsible for contributing to a vision of the food system in which the various participants are treated with dignity and justice.

In particular, the circumstances facing the family in farming are especially distressing. In many respects, we have sought an abundant harvest in exchange for a diminished culture of rural life. For generations, the Church proposed the family farm as a model of agricultural stewardship and cooperation, a human community truly oriented toward the economic, social, and spiritual good of its members and those beyond it. Today’s economic realities make such a lifestyle virtually impossible for those seeking these celebrated models of family farming. It is especially difficult for current families who seek to continue that heritage. The promotion of thriving family farms must be one of the essential benchmarks of human-centered agriculture leadership.

One-third of the world’s 7.3 billion people are smallholder farmers.[2] They and their families produce nearly 70 percent of all food consumed worldwide on 60 percent of the planet’s arable land.[3] However, with the expansion of industrial farming, support for smallholder, or peasant, farmers has been reduced and has pushed these more modest operations into a nearly invisible status. Even so, there are still hundreds of millions of working smallholder farms across the planet. There is little consideration, investment and research devoted to these resilient smallholder producers; agricultural leaders and policymakers need to put them at the heart of the world’s agricultural development strategy if we hope to overcome hunger in all corners of our world.

Furthermore, it is too often overlooked in many places around the globe that women are the primary agricultural producers within their communities. They exercise an extraordinary leadership through their devoted efforts, giving witness to the integrity of honest labour in both the fields and the market places. Their authority is grounded in their steadfast care for their families, communities, and neighbours. They contribute in an essential way to the overall health and well being of a community, not merely in terms of providing nutrition, but by creating a context of well-being and development for all members of their locality. Indeed, there can be no effective development without women’s involvement at all levels of food production and decision-making.

Peasant or family farmers—and here we can include farmworkers—often suffer from policies of agricultural development that favor large-scale production over and against smaller producers. The consequences of these policies often take opportunities away from local farmers and place control into the hands of banks, intermediaries and large corporations. Laudato Si warns about this as well: “Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their lands or to abandon their traditional crops. Attempts by the latter to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses.” (LS §129) Agricultural leaders have a responsibility to ensure the conditions in which the family can remain a vibrant community amidst the production of foods and other agricultural products.

Questions for reflection: In what ways do I acknowledge that I am dependent upon the livelihoods of others?

How does my decision-making include the perspectives of others, including the marginalized?


Proceed to SEEING the World of Agriculture:Challenges and Opportunites



[1] The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, The Vocation of the Business Leader (2013), §10.

[2] Smallholder Solutions to Hunger, Poverty and Climate Change. Holt-Gimenez, Eric and Annie Shattuck, Food First; policy brief co-published by ActionAid; Dec. 2011.

[3] Ibid. Also see the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization’s web-based “Family Farming Knowledge Platform”: