The United Methodist Church has long witnessed to rural peoples and their concerns. Each General Conference since 1940 has suggested responses for improving rural church and community life, and the economic and environmental well-being of rural peoples. The 1988 General Conference accepted a study on U.S. Agriculture and Rural Communities in Crisis. This resolution reaffirms that study and calls The United Methodist Church to continue its commitment to rural church ministry and its advocacy for agricultural and rural community concerns.
II. Theological Statement: Land, People & Justice
God is the owner of the land (Lev. 25); thus it is a gift in covenant which involves the stewardship of keeping and tending the land for present and future generations; as God's creation, land has the need to be regenerated that it may sustain life and be a place of joy. It is a common gift to all of life requiring just patterns of land use.
Social, economic, and ecological justice with regard to the use of land was central to the Law. The land itself was to receive a rest every seven years (Lev. 25:4). Voluntary charity or occasional care of the land was not enough. Israel's failure to follow the laws related to the land was considered a cause of the exile to Babylon (2 Chron. 36:21).
The care of the land, the rights of the poor and those in need were at the center of the Law. Adequate food was regarded as an inherent right of all, such that the poor could eat grapes in a neighbor's vineyard or pluck grain when passing by a field (Deut. 23:24-25). Owners were urged not to be too efficient in their harvest (Lev. 19:9-10), so that gleaning by those in need was possible.
Indeed, the concept of equal access to community resources according to need formed the basis of the covenant the community was expected to embody. The caring for one's neighbor, especially one in need, became a religious obligation. Jesus both inherits and fulfills this tradition when he lists the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself as second only to the commandment to love God (Matt. 22:38-40).
The prophets saw the patterns of economic exploitation, social class consciousness, judicial corruption, political oppression, failing to care for the land, and exclusiveness as opposed to God's desire for full life and wholeness for all (Amos 2-8; Isa 5:1-1, 58:3-7, Jer. 2:7-8; Hos. 4:1-3). Some would suggest that both the contemporary world and Israel under the monarchy came to worship “bigness” more than God.
Today, rural parts of the globe suffer from many of the same maladies as did ancient Israel. Land holdings have become more concentrated. The accumulation of material wealth often is worshiped as the solution to other spiritual and economic problems. Creation itself groans under a burden of eroding topsoil, toxic wastes, and polluted waters. Neither the land nor most of the people who work it can celebrate the wholeness God intended.
III. Major Findings
A. The Farm Crisis
As the adverse economic conditions affecting rural America continue to be chronic, the patterns of diverse land ownership and control are disappearing. The structure of agriculture is changing. In 1986, the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress estimated that about 72,000 farms may be lost each year until the year 2000. Most of the farms expected to be lost are family sized units.
Ethnic-minority-owned and small-scale farms will decline further if present trends continue. A family farm is defined not by the number of acres in operation, but as an agricultural production unit and business in which the management, economic risk, and most of the labor (except in peak seasons) are provided by the family, and from which the family receives a significant part, though not necessarily the majority, of its income.
Declining land values, the relationship between farm product prices and incomes, farm debt and bankruptcies, forced land transfers and foreclosures, changes in the structure of agriculture, and tax policy continue to contribute to the loss of family farms.
Black and other minority farmers are even less likely than white farmers to benefit from any changes in the rural/farm economy. According to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Emergency Land Fund, if present land loss continues, there will be virtually no black farmers by the year 2000. Surveys of Native American farmers suggest that their situation may be nearly as bleak as that of black farmers. Farming is the leading occupation among Native Americans living on reservation lands. Asian
Americans and Hispanics have historically been excluded from significant farm ownership.
Farm workers have difficult and dangerous work. Inadequate wages, benefits and living facilities keep most farm workers in poverty.
Many farmers have internalized the external cause of their losses which has led to deep depression, spouse and family abuse, alcoholism, mental breakdown, divorce, suicide, participation in extremist groups, and at times, murder.
The farm crisis accelerates the loss of rural community.
B. Rural Community in Crisis
The rural United States today is a contrast between beauty and desecration, isolation and industrialization, wealth and poverty, power and oppression, freedom and exploitation, abundance and hunger, and individualism and dependence. Thindustrialization, wealth and poverty, power and oppression, freedom and exploitation, abundance and hunger, and individualism and dependence. The nation's poorest housing and health facilities occur disproportionately in rural communities, as do the worst education, the worst roads and transportation systems, the least progressive justice systems, and the greatest poverty and malnutrition. Towns which not long ago were vibrant communities of economic, social and spiritual life now have become ghost towns with empty businesses, abandoned homes, closed churches, and broken spirits. Broken homes, broken lives, suicides, bankruptcies, spouse and child
C. The Ecological Crisis in Rural Areas
Much of the rural population of the United States depends on ground water from shallow wells, many of which are already polluted. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 1984 survey of rural water quality found that almost two-thirds of the supplies tested exceeded EPA's drinking water standards for at least one contaminant.
Soil conservation practices such as contour plowing, crop rotation, wind-breaks, and covering-cropping are affected as farmers are pushed to farm more and more acres with bigger and bigger equipment.
The decline of conservation practices is paralleled by an increase in pesticide and herbicide use. While their use brings many benefits, there are still unanswered questions that need to be carefully examined.
Absentee land ownership and all its shortcomings are endemic to mining. Restoration of mined land continues to be a concern. Studies by the Commission on Religion in Appalachia reveal that mining interests often pay little heed to restoration laws, and have the political clout to get away with ignoring them.
The loss of genetic diversity, including the consequences of the loss of native seed and animal varieties is a concern.
The genetic engineering of plants and animals and the patenting of genes, plants and animals raise major concerns.
IV. The Church Responding to Crisis
In some areas the churches have been helpful in assisting farmers to cope with the loss of their farms and in aiding others to help keep their farms. Unfortunately, in many cases, churches have been ineffective in fulfilling this ministry. A number of reasons have been cited for the church's shortcoming:
Many church members are still accepting a theology that “goodness” means “success,” and that failure means that God has punished the person for his/her “sins.”
Many clergy are not trained adequately to minister to the needs of the hurting families in their communities.
In general, clergy are more involved in responding to congregational needs than the needs of the larger community.
In many rural areas, churches are still operating under an independent rather than a cooperative model.
V. A Call for Change: What Needs To Be Done?
A. The local churches, charges, and cooperative parish ministries, are called to:
1. Intentionally develop ministries to meet major needs that exist today in rural United States including:
a. Take responsibility for assisting with mending the brokenness of community life in rural society.
b. Strengthen its ministry and mission with rural churches and communities
c. Lift up the responsible stewardship of natural resources.
d. Build bridges of understanding and partnership between rural and urban congregations and communities.
2. Implement the recommendations of the General Board of Discipleship 1992 study on “Strengthening the Small Membership Church.”
B. The districts are called to:
1. Develop and or strengthen their missional stance in rural areas.
2. Create cluster groups and other supportive networks within the district to facilitate spiritual formation.
3. Encourage cooperative leadership through more creative use of available personnel and appropriate technology.
C. Annual conferences are called to:
1. Analyze their rural crisis response and provide funding for an effective and ongoing response.
2. Place personnel strategically in order to respond to rural needs. Insist that pastoral appointments be made with the needs of entire communities in mind, and not just the needs of the congregation.
3. Become public policy advocates, speaking out as a Church, creating awareness and understanding, and in bringing about positive change.
4. Cooperate with other church and secular agencies in a rural response.
5. Be in partnership with seminaries to develop programs, including “teaching” parishes and internships, to equip ministers to serve in rural areas.
6. Develop programs to invest conference foundation funds in rural economic development needs.
7. Discover ways to enable the ethnic ownership of farmland.
8. Model and support the team ministry concept at every level, including cluster groups and other supportive networks to facilitate spiritual formation.
9. Develop programs for volunteers-in-mission in rural areas.
10. Encourage sustainable agricultural practices by United Methodist family-owned farms.
D. The general Church is called to:
1. Use its seminaries to prepare clergy to be more effective pastors in rural areas, using the “missionary training” model, knowing that many ministers not accustomed to rural life enter into an area where there is a new “language,” a new lifestyle, a new culture.
2. Cooperate ecumenically and with other groups to develop responses to the problems of rural areas.
3. Better learn the skills of personnel placement, so that appointed ministers in rural areas will have a long enough tenure to build trust/understanding relationships necessary for becoming pastors to the community. Place more mission (and similar) personnel in rural ministries.
4. Recognize Rural Life Sunday as a special day in the church year, combining in the one day the emphases of Rural Life Sunday, Soil Stewardship Day, Earth Day, World Environment Day and Rogation Sunday.
5. Provide opportunities for U.S. and Third World farmers to share innovations and knowledge.
6. Carefully analyze and monitor all church agencies' programs to insure sensitivity to the present rural crisis.
7. Emphasize, in all appropriate literature and training programs, the importance of soil stewardship and ecology as a part of total Christian Stewardship. General agencies should report annually on their stewardship of farm and rural lands they own.
8. Consider using a significant portion of the investment funds of all Church agencies for investment in local-church-based community economic development in rural areas.
9. Urge all church agencies to continue to promote the cooperative style of ministry, especially cooperative parish ministries, as a model of God's desire for life in community.
10. Aggressively research corporate ownership of agriculture and its effects upon life in rural areas, and advocate necessary responses based upon the findings of this research.
11. Request that the General Board of Discipleship Curriculum Resources Committee periodically develop curriculum resources develop curriculum resources on the issues raised in this resolution, in coordination with the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries, and make such materia
12. Call upon the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries to develop other materials to interpret this resolution.
E. Bishops are called to:
1. Work toward longer term rural appointments (with a goal of a minimum of 4 years) of clergy leadership to provide more stability in rural areas.
2. Foster cooperative styles of leadership in rural churches by more creative use of available ministerial personnel and appropriate technology.
F. Federal legislators and administrators, as they develop farm and rural policies are called to:
1. Develop policies that will enable farm families to receive a just return for their labor and investments. These new policies would:
a. Reverse the loss of family farms.
b. Provide for credit to family farmers at affordable interest rates.
c. Develop a marketing and government support system that will guarantee the cost of production to farm families.
d. Initiate participatory democratic processes with farmers to determine if mandatory production goals, which would discourage over-production of some commodities, are needed to move toward a balance between supply and demand.
e. Greatly reduce government payments to large corporate farming interests.
f. Create programs that would enable new families to enter farming as vocation.
g. Create incentives for family farmers to shift from current production-oriented modes to a sustainable and regenerative agriculture.
h. Ensure the participation of family farmers regardless of race and sex.
2. Discourage concentration in ownership and control of land and money and move toward land reforms that broaden ownership of land.
3. Require soil and water conservation practices for farm operations which participate in federal programs; include farmers in the planning of such requirements.
4. Reduce the federal deficit without burdening family farms.
5. Reform federal tax laws to remove unfair competition and discourage tax shelter motivated capital in agriculture.
6. Maintain an emphasis on direct loan activity, resist attempts to reduce the level of direct loans in favor of guarantees, and increase the Limited Resources Loan program for qualified farmers.
7. Provide for commodity reserves, isolated from the market, to be established at a level adequate to protect consumers from supply disruption and meet domestic agricultural disaster and global humanitarian food aid requirements.
8. Ensure that most federally-supported programs of research and education in agriculture focus on small and medium-sized family farm operations, with special attention paid to minority farmers, and that county committees, which administer these programs, be inclusive of women and minority farmers.
9. Fund major new research initiatives and programs through the federal land grant institutions, including black land grant colleges, to ensure that development of long-term, sustainable and regenerative agriculture.
10. Develop farm policies that will encourage farm owned and controlled businesses and cooperatives for processing, distributing and marketing farm products.
11. Develop policies that will respect the guaranteed land and water rights of all minority peoples.
12. Develop and support programs in cooperation with community-based organizations to improve the quality of life in depressed rural areas, with attention given to health care, transportation, education, employment, law enforcement, housing, job training, and environmental protection.
13. Develop national and regional water and energy policies which assure that those who benefit from energy and water projects pay a substantial portion of those costs.
14. Recognize and protect the right of farm workers to organize into unions of their own choosing, be covered by minimum wage laws, and receive adequate benefits, including social security, health care, and unemployment.
15. Discourage exports policies that would hurt small farm agriculture in developing countries and hinder efforts toward food self-sufficiency in those countries.
16. Prohibit the importation of produce containing residues of pesticides or other chemicals that are banned for U.S. producers and revise permitted residue levels when the pesticide is banned.
17. Urge the federal government to declare moratoriums on foreclosures in states where lenders are participating in debt restructure or mediation programs.
18. Seek out international cooperation in developing an international food policy.
G. State governments are called to:
1. Develop systems of mediation to resolve conflicts between borrower and lender.
2. Develop and enforce fair and just tax systems that ensure that those with great wealth and political power pay their fair share of taxes.
3. Ensure that state subsidies for water benefit small and medium-sized operations.
4. Protect security of farm products stored by farmers in elevators.
5. Develop and support farmers' markets and marketing cooperatives.
6. Pay special attention to the education and relocation of jobless persons, commit state resources to the establishment of industries or agencies that will increase the job/tax base, and maintenance of an acceptable quality of social services for all.
7. Allocate funds to monitor all state programs and economic development projects for their impact upon the socio-economic and natural environment.
8. Urge the development and maintenance of conservation programs that supplement federal programs and environmental standards that exceed federal minimums.
9. Sell bonds to help farmers secure low-interest loans, with special attention given to minority farmers and others with similar needs. Assist such families in identifying and securing loans from such sources.
10. Assure that state marketing regulations benefit small and medium-sized operators.
11. Ensure that most state-supported programs of research and education in agriculture focus on small-and-medium-sized family farm operations, with special attention paid to minority farmers.
12. Fund major research initiatives and programs through state and/or corporate grants to ensure the development of long-term, sustainable, and regenerative agriculture.
H. Government and private lending agencies are called to:
1. Continue to restructure existing loans to allow for lower payments over a longer period of time, and with lower interest rates, as agreed to by lender and borrower through a mediation process.
2. Require the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other lending agencies to have more balanced and consistent lending policies and practices, and to assess fairly the spending of authorized funds on farm operations.
3. Urge the U.S. government to change accounting procedures to allow banks that participate in debt restructure agreements to write off any potential losses over a ten-year period.
4. Give priority for purchases to minority foreclosed, beginning and re-entering farmers when foreclosed land is offered for sale.
I. Local government and community groups are called to:
1. Develop land use and land reclamation policies, supported by adequate funding, to preserve productive farmlands.
2. Organize and support local groups to provide legal aid, financial advice, counseling and other support service for rural persons.
3. Monitor programs to assure that all community planning is ecologically sound, socially responsible, and includes persons of color and women.
4. Foster a positive community spirit with a variety of local programs that enhance the community members' well-being and self-worth.
5. Develop and support measures that ensure a fair tax treatment of all in the community.
6. Support the development of local programs to meet such special needs as better housing, health care, transportation, and recreation.
7. Develop local representative, long-range planning committees to monitor and advise elected or appointed officials, and community groups.
8. Cooperate with state agencies to develop policies so that farmers markets in their communities may be able to accept food stamps and WIC certificates for purchases.
J. Multinational, national, and local business groups are called to:
1. Examine their corporate policy in relationship to an understanding of and responsiveness to the values of rural lifestyles represented by smaller farm size units.
2. Implement just policies concerning the ethics of research; short-term and long-term ecological effects; conservation of resources; water and energy use; local, national, and export marketing; labor use; and the availability and access to financing and credit.
The more difficult task for the Church is to take clearly and intentionally the prophetic role. The Church has a clear record of helping the world address such issues as clean water and air, civil rights, nuclear warfare, arms expenditures, and world hunger. The Church must likewise take responsibility for addressing the problem of agriculture. The outcome of human history will be determined by our resolve to achieve a favorable future for agriculture.
Unless we change some basic directions, we are not just in a period of transition; we are headed for disaster for all nations. Some basic directions that must be changed include:
--The movement toward investor-owned land in increasingly larger corporate units; the separation of ownership, management, and labor.
--The increased reliance upon high inputs of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and chemicals.
--The continued decline in rural populations from rural areas, especially those who have been directly involved in food production.
--The increasing chemical toxicity of our water systems, air, rain, waste dumps and vegetable and animal products.
--The continuing loss of cropland through erosion, salinization, urbanization, conversion, and other processes.
--The disappearance of world forest resources, and changing weather patterns resulting from that.
--The loss of atmospheric ozone.
--The continuing and growing use of the world's basic resources for armaments.
--The loss of our centuries-old genetic seed bank.
We can change the direction of agriculture and rural development, but we need guidelines. A preferred agriculture must have three attributes:
(1) It must be just. A just society and a just agriculture provides the means whereby people can share in the inheritance of the earth so that all life can fully be maintained in freedom and community. The purpose of a just agriculture should be for the maintenance and renewal of the necessary resources for food, clothing and shelter, for now and for the future.
(2) It must be participatory. For an agriculture to be just everyone has the right to be consulted. Participation in society and in the ongoing process of creation is the necessary condition for justice. Participation requires a recognition of everyone's right to be consulted and understood, regardless of that person's economic, political, or social status. Participation is not possible without power. In such decision-making everyone has the right to be consulted about such issues as expenditures for armaments, nuclear power, forms of employment, social services, etc...
(3) It must be sustainable. A sustainable agriculture is one where the idea of permanent carrying capacity is maintained, where yields (agriculture, energy production, forestry, water use, industrial activity) are measured by whether or not they are sustainable, rather than by the criteria of yields per acre or profits. In a sustainable agriculture waste products can be absorbed back into the ecosystem without damage.
A just, participatory and sustainable agriculture would meet basic human needs for food and fiber, regenerate and protect ecosystems, be economically viable, enhance the quality of life for farm families, be supportive of rural communities, be socially just, and be compatible with spiritual teachings that recognize the earth as a common heritage and responsibility. For Christians, the idea of sustainability flows directly from the biblical call to human beings to be stewards of God's creation.
Purchase a subscription to the Journal of Markets & Morality to get access to the most recent issues.
Read our free quarterly publication that has interviews with important religious figures and articles bettering the free and virtuous society. Visit R&L today.
Phone: (616) 454-3080
Fax: (616) 454-9454