Nuns on Tractors Can Bring a More Sustainable World

Sister Mary Othelia drives one of the Mount Asissi Convent's tractors across the fields where the nuns do all of the planting
Sister Mary Othelia drives one of the Mount Asissi Convent's tractors across the fields where the nuns do all of the planting and harvesting on the 100 acre farm, Lemont, Illinois, August 4, 1942. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Nuns on tractors? Sounds a bit odd, but if a creative group of Roman Catholic sisters in Kentucky and neighboring states have their way, they and other religious orders can take leading roles in the world's growing movement for sustainable agriculture.

Faith communities are among the most influential entities in the world today. Did you know that these groups are linked to 85 percent of the world's population? Or that they own seven percent of the world's arable land? That they are involved in more than half of the world's schools? Or that they are the third-largest category of financial investors in the world?

These remarkable statistics were highlighted by Sister Claire McGowan, a Dominican Sister of Peace, at a recent conference, "Leadership for Sustainable Religious Lands: Tilling a Future of Hope." Sister Claire, an enthusiastic nun who prefers to think small, is onto something big. Since 2005 she has been executive director of New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, based in Washington County, Ky., about 60 miles southeast of Louisville. That group's goal is to promote "sustainable thinking and development."

The conference was an outgrowth of "religious lands days" at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, which is an internationally respected project of the Center for Interfaith Relations, the organization founded by Christina Lee Brown and others in the mid-1990s at the time the city's Cathedral of the Assumption was undergoing massive restoration. In the years since, Mrs. Brown, who coined the term "Nuns on Tractors," and her creative team have explored all sorts of ways to inspire constructive, sustainable change that reaches far beyond the confines of Kentucky.

It became clear that something more than a meeting one day a year was needed to make a significant difference. Mrs. Brown was familiar with New Pioneers, a nonprofit organization that focused strictly on Washington County, and she proposed that a broader movement be launched from that Springfield, Ky., base. (Springfield is the location of St. Catharine College.) Sister Claire was startled. "Leading a regional movement encompassing all of Kentucky and parts of several surrounding states sounded a lot bigger than I wanted to take on!" she said.

That reluctance has been overtaken by the clear need for someone to coordinate what is rapidly becoming a multi-state effort. The recent all-day conference at the Ursuline campus in Louisville offered opportunities to brainstorm and to work with experts in nonprofit planning to set some goals. Among its speakers was Mary Berry, executive director of The Berry Center in Newcastle, Ky., an organization dedicated to advancing the views of her father, Wendell Berry, and the Berry family, all leaders in the field of sustainable agriculture. Ms. Berry, herself a farmer and writer, offered a gloomy perspective on farming in America today.

She said that at the end of World War II, the pieces were in place to launch a strong farm economy based on use of solar energy and manpower, rooted in vibrant rural communities with links to markets in larger communities nearby. The change was the swift transfer to fossil fuel-based farming with heavy investments in machinery and chemicals.

In her father's 1977 classic, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry recalls an article published in 1967 about a federal study of agriculture which concluded that even then, two decades after World War II, America still had too many farmers and needed programs to train them to work in cities and suburbs. The tradeoff was big industrial farms with plentiful and relatively less expensive food.

"But more and more consumers are now becoming aware that our supposed abundance of cheap and healthful food is to a considerable extent an illusion," said Ms. Berry, in the words of her father. "They are beginning to see that the social, ecological, and even the economic costs of such 'cheap food' are, in fact, great. They are beginning to see that a system of food production that is dependent on massive applications of drugs and chemicals cannot, by definition, produce 'pure food.' And they are beginning to see that a kind of agriculture that involves unprecedented erosion and depletion of soil, unprecedented waste of water, and unprecedented destruction of the farm population cannot by any accommodation of sense or fantasy be called 'sustainable.''"

Her ominous report reignited the mood of urgency in the room, where some fifty people gathered to discuss the opportunities that their lands, and their orders, might have for setting examples of sustainability and blessings from the good earth. Before the lunch break they broke into small groups of six or seven at round tables.

The questions they were asked were these:

  • What does your community's land mean to you personally? How has that land helped shape your personal spirit, commitment and sense of mission?
  • Why has your congregation held onto its land so long (if it has) or divested its land (if it has)? What theological values underlie the relationship between your congregation and your land? How might this theology be of use to our world?
  • Over the course of an hour, the small groups considered these questions. Then Sister Julie Driscoll, founder of the House of Ruth and a social activist in Louisville for decades, asked individuals to speak. Sister Susan Gatz, a Sister of Charity from Nazareth, articulated the views of many: "There is a rootedness when you walk on the land you know... you gain a sense of how deeply rooted we are. We're only here for this long. What are we doing to nourish [the land] and make it flourish?"

    "Land isn't just for us," said Sister Robbie Pentecost, Order of St. Francis. "So many people come to our land and feel the holiness as well. We need to engage all of those people to work with us."

    Kathleen Lyons, of the Center for Interfaith Relations, offered some very constructive advice: "Think small. Our whole culture encourages us to think globally. To go back is to go forward to a sustainable use of our land."

    The remainder of the day was devoted to studying ways to practically achieve these lofty purposes. With the guidance of Dr. Joy Anderson from the Connecticut-based Criterion Institute, a group that focuses on "empowerment so people can see what could be," she explained that the sisters' goals should include thinking of the church as an "economic being."

    "What would God's economy look like? Not just how we participate in it, but how we could change it. Rethink the rules so your values are reflected."

    At day's end, the sisters realized that the initiative they are undertaking will take time, prayer and identification of solid partners who can offer the other resources that will be needed, especially technical expertise and funding options. But they believe they are on the right track with this initiative.

    Just as in previous eras they founded schools, hospitals and social service agencies to respond to unmet human needs, they recognize now that care for the land, water and air of our planet is one of the most urgent unmet needs of our time.