A year after the release of Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, a look at the implications of the Pope’s message for Catholic farmers in Iowa.

The Rev. Robert “Bud” Grant was at the Vatican in 2013 when then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, took the name Francis, after the patron saint of animals and the environment. For Grant, who teaches Environmental Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, the implications of a pope taking the name Francis were clear.

“It was like our moment in the sun,” Grant said of himself and other Catholic environmentalists. He acknowledged the irony in his statement.

Rev. Robert “Bud” Grant takes care of chores on his farm outside Blue Grass, Iowa. Grant raises sheep, chicken, geese, ducks and two horses on his small acreage.

Grant has dedicated his life to teaching Iowa Catholics the importance of environmental stewardship, from lowering greenhouse gas emissions to choosing sustainable consumption practices. He spent much of 2015 touring his home state of Iowa, breaking down the message of the Pope’s 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home, a 184-document in which Francis lays out a moral framework for environmental consciousness. He also shares his message with parishioners at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Blue Grass, Iowa, where he serves as a sacramental minister.

Many in Grant’s audiences are farmers and farm families, including most of his rural parish. Some remain skeptical of humanity’s role in climate change (Grant doesn’t even use the phrase in his homilies). His message for them instead starts in the ground, in the terra (an Italian word Francis uses frequently in his encyclical) that sustains their livelihoods. For rural Catholics, Grant argues, the ground they till is sacred, and that’s reason enough to care for it.

“You don’t get any closer with God than when you’re working with nature all the time.”

Randy Schaefer at his farm near Blue Grass, Iowa on Thursday, April 14, 2016.
Randy Schaefer at his farm near Blue Grass, Iowa.

61-year-old Randy Schaefer has lived and farmed near Blue Grass since he was two years old. He took his first vacation in 2014, when his youngest son held a destination wedding in Colorado.

As a member of St. Andrew parish, Schaefer has heard Grant’s message of sustainability and environmental stewardship dozens of times. In 2013, after practicing conventional tilling on his crops for most of his life, Schaefer switched to no-till, a technique that helps keep soil from becoming too compact and prone to nutrient runoff. He began seeing results almost immediately. In 2015 Schaefer conducted a compaction study on some of the fields where he has been using no-till by measuring how difficult it is to lower a space into the soil.

“On some of the fields we didn’t even have to put any pressure to go full spade depth,” he said. “So that tells you the soil health is there.”

Like many in Grant’s parish, Schaefer is still torn over the reality climate change. But he believes his duty as both a Catholic and a human is to think of the next generation, and the least contested way to do that is by caring for the soil.

(The following video is best viewed on a mobile device or virtual reality headset with headphones).

Rural priests and parishes feel the change

A recurring theme in Francis’ Laudato Si’ is the connections between environmental stewardship and care for the poor. But the connections don’t stop there. Rural Iowa parishes and aging priests are feeling the strain of a shrinking population due in part to the growth of agricultural operations. One priest, 80-year-old Rev. Ed Dunn, currently administers sacraments at four parishes, despite the maximum suggested number for active priests being just three.


Nancy Schlichte sits in the now-stripped Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Merrill, Iowa.

In northwest Iowa, the Sioux City Diocese is planning to close or consolidate almost 40% of its parishes, mostly in rural areas and farm communities. Former Parish Director Nancy Schlichte talked about the experience of closing her home church in Merrill, Iowa.


(The following video is best viewed on a mobile device or virtual reality headset with headphones).

“We’re right there with ’em some years.”

For family farmers like Roger Friederichs, the market plays the biggest role in determining agricultural practice. Friederichs would love to grow crops other than corn and beans, with smaller fields and more buffer areas to preserve soil and prevent runoff, but it simply doesn’t seem possible.

I spoke with Friederichs and his wife, Janet, after a Mass at St. Andrew parish in Blue Grass. We talked about one of the major themes of Francis’ Laudato Si’: connecting environmental concerns to care for the poor.

“We’re right there with them some years,” said Roger, laughing.

Like Schaefer, Friederichs has also transitioned some of his fields to no-till, an important first step in soil and water quality preservation.

“We have to take up that cross”

The crux of Grant’s message is that the faithful will feel the effects of the shift to sustainable practices, perhaps even on their wallets. This is not limited just to farmers, but to all consumers. For many, it will be sharing a cross that’s already being borne around the world.