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Farmers help one another

If a man is taught to farm, he is sustained for life.
If entire generations of children and teenagers are taught the ins and outs of agriculture, they change the world around them, creating a culture of food stability and economic growth.
This mentality and curriculum is what Uganda representatives from the Gayaza Girls High School are implementing thanks to a collaboration with Future Farmers of America coordinated by Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency.
"Our aim is to help improve food security in communities," said Bruce White, CRS' project director of the Farmer to Farmer Program for East Africa. "The whole idea of finding a way to educate youth on agriculture and make a business from it is really powerful."
It was four days of learning and discussion for all during the Arkansas Future Farmers of America Convention in June where an international delegation from Uganda visited to learn how to establish a structured agricultural education in their country.
"My interest is seeing that every child who steps in school grows a passion for agriculture," through knowledge and activities, said Ronald Ddungu, deputy head teacher of academics and innovations at Gayaza.
CRS helped make the connection between their staff in Uganda and Future Farmers of America in the spring 2016. George Ntibarikure, agriculture adviser for CRS in Uganda, visited an agriculture education program in North Carolina and was impressed by the knowledge and business-minded work of the students and teachers. Ntibarikure said he was particularly impressed when he discussed agriculture with a student who knew not only the mechanics of the trade, but the business side.
While Uganda is predominantly an agricultural country, younger youth did not have any training. White said agriculture is often seen as "a road to poverty," yet this program will show that there is vast economic opportunity.
"We're trying to get the youth, those in high school, to grow in that culture" before college, Ntibarikure told the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock.
After the visit, CRS helped bring educators from various regions of the national FFA to Uganda in the fall, including Nina Crutchfield, a local program success specialist for 10 years for the national FFA organization and member of St. Albert Church in Heber Springs. National FFA members shared industry insights and the model that teachers in the U.S. use to educate agriculture students. A set of recommendations was passed along and the progress was discussed during the convention.
White said bringing the delegation to the U.S. is a direct result of "Catholic pew donation," which allowed this program to begin.
The program -- styled after the Future Farmers of America program and dubbed Youth Future Farmers of Africa, Uganda -- has started at the Gayaza Girls High School in Kampala, the oldest and one of the most revered girls school in the country, sitting on more than 90 acres of land. More than 34 other schools have started the clubs in their schools in the surrounding regions, with monetary help from local and global organizations, as well as money raised by students.
An annual farm camp experience allows students to put into practice what they've learned, from plowing fields, helping a cow give birth, harvesting and having projects or fun activities for friendly competition. Technical speakers also are invited to share their knowledge about the agriculture industry.
The fourth annual farm camp will be held in August, where about 200 youth and 50 teachers are expected to attend.
In April, the school hosted a farm carnival for the first time, with proceeds divided between the farm and students, said Brian Kibirige, farm manager at Gayaza.
"I'm happy to be in this discussion … and just to see the youth excited," he said.
The program not only includes high school students, but grade schoolers, called Young FFA Uganda, and teachers, called Teachers and Educators FFA Uganda.
The curriculum will be set up in stages:
-- Year one: vegetables, grown on a farm or greenhouse.
-- Year two: dairy and cattle farming, which will include raising cows, milk management and production of dairy products.
-- Year three: poultry and pigs, focused on animal science.
-- The remaining years will be focused on banana planting, a prominent industry in Uganda.
While Gayaza had set up a farmer's club, it is the long-term structure -- the educational side -- that the delegation is interested in establishing.
"We need to make the teachers the practitioners," said Ddungu, who is a driving force for the program.
Once teachers are dedicated to agricultural curriculum, it'll make the students more involved and having a uniform system that guarantees students that go through the program come out with a certain set of skills and knowledge is the goal, he added.
Crutchfield, who taught agriculture education for 14 years, said watching this new organization form is a glimpse of what it must have been like when the Future Farmers of America was being formed more than 80 years ago.
"God's providence is in it all. I never dreamed my passion for teaching and youth, being Catholic and my job all would intersect at the same time," she said.
Creating food stability is essential for any nation, which all "goes back to Catholic teaching. … When people aren't hungry, they aren't fighting," she added.
  • Published in World

Donegan Farm

When 34-year-old Joe Donegan was growing up near the maternal family farm in Hinesburg, he considered pursing a farm life or a religious vocation. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public and community service with a minor in theology from Providence College and worked on a St. Albans dairy farm.
And he realized he could farm and live a life of service to God.
“Any work is infused with divine dignity and divine purpose if it’s what God wants you to do,” he said.
Now married and the father of three boys, Mr. Donegan sees his ministry as one of husband, father, son, farmer, brother, neighbor.
He and his wife, Emily – whom he met at a plant sale in Providence – run Donegan Family Farm in Charlotte; they own about 80 acres and rent 200 more, pasturing and/or grazing 260 acres. In mid May they had 83 Jersey cows of which 36 were milked.
The organic farm is part of the Organic Valley cooperative. According to its website, “Research shows that organic foods are higher in antioxidants and other nutrients, like omega-3 and CLA essential fatty acids. And organic crops have been shown to contain significantly less concentrations of cadmium—a toxic metal on par with lead and mercury. Organic food really is better for you. And it tastes better too.”
Donegan said he farms organic not just because there is a niche market for the organic milk but because he considers it a spiritual obligation to farm in a way that improves the overall ecological health of the Earth God has created.
“Here in Vermont grass-fed meat and milk are sustainable and restorative [improving the soil and keeping carbon out of the atmosphere], if you do it right,” said Mrs. Donegan, 33, a Groveland, Mass., native who earned a bachelor’s degree in integrative studies at Warren Wilson College near Ashville, N.C.
And there is a social justice aspect to what they are doing: “Agricultural land in a country with starving people should not be used to feed the rest of the world” but its own inhabitants, Mr. Donegan said. He is working to contribute to the feeding of people in the United States with food produced here and has been influenced by the writing of environmental activist Bill McKibben, author of such books as “Hope, Human and Wild” and “Wandering Home.”
The Donegans have been at their Charlotte farm for seven and a half years; they purchased it two years ago.
They are the parents of Patrick, 7; Franklin, 5; and Dominick, 2.
On a recent afternoon the older boys – clad in knee-high rubber boots -- were in and out of the farmhouse kitchen as their parents talked with a visitor, their brother on his mother’s lap.
Patrick said he drinks mostly milk from the farm, but sometimes he drinks store-bought milk when he visits family in Massachusetts. The organic farm milk is better, he said.
“Our boys are exposed to real, simple, honest work,” Mrs. Donegan said. “They enjoy working,” especially in the vegetable garden. “As a farm family, we do a lot of work together.”
The Donegans belong to St. Jude Church in Hinesburg where Mrs. Donegan is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and Mr. Donegan is a member of the men’s group.

Originally published in the summer 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.

  • Published in Parish

Showing, sowing, growing mercy

At Mercy Farm in Benson, the Sisters of Mercy are creating a place where people can experience peace and quiet and a sense of contemplation, reverence and care for the Earth. 

Here the importance of the Earth and its care are emphasized, and visitors are encouraged to find ways they can care for it: organic gardening, recycling, composting, using solar power and reusing, for example.

Here visitors can experience God in creation; one college student returned to her Catholic faith after a visit to the farm.

Three Sisters of Mercy live on the farm that was once Lumen Christi retreat center and before that a Benedictine residence: Sister Elizabeth Secord has been at the farm since 2013 and is the program manager; Sister Holly Cloutier, the farm manager, as been here since 2010; and Sister Mary Quinn, the business manager, has lived here since 2013.

Here in the quiet, “God has a chance to get through,” Sister Secord said.

There is a plaque in the farm kitchen that reads, “Let us be silent that we may hear the whisper of God.”

Officially known as Mercy Ecology Inc. at Mercy Farm, it offers self-directed and directed retreats, group rentals (including recovery retreats and yoga) school programs including the Classroom Around Us and Human Impact on the Landscape, liturgical programs and farm experiences like preparing gardens, planting and stacking wood. Staff members also help visitors design their own programs on topics like canning, bread making and quilting.

The sisters care for the Earth through environmental education, organic gardening and sustainable living practices that include solar energy for about 85 percent of their electric needs.

Located on 39 acres ­— including eight conserved acres — the farm facilities include six bedrooms and three bathrooms for guests, a chapel/meeting room, a library, an art room and quiet space. There is a bee yard with hives and a barn with 20 solar panels. Two sheep — Bailey and Dexter — and numerous egg-laying hens live on the farm that draws guests from throughout the Northeast and from as far away as the southern states and England, Australia and Guam.

Produce from the gardens is used for guests, donated to the Fair Haven Concerned Food Shelf and shared with neighbors.

Visitors sometimes work in the gardens.

“We help [visitors] reverence the Earth and get a sense of the Earth,” Sister Secord said.

Owned by the Sisters of Mercy of the Northeast for more than a dozen years, the property is now focused on ecology; “healing of the Earth” is a focus of the religious order once primarily engaged in teaching and now also focused on women and children.

“We want to help people understand that the materialism and consumerism people experience causes us to be greedy,” Sister Secord said. “We want to help them understand the need to cut back on some of our consumption.”

She said that even though people have many “things,” many are still not spiritually fulfilled: “People still feel hungry and empty.”


‘If you are connected to the Earth, you’re fulfilled.
I see God in the Earth. I see God in all of life.’

— Sister Elizabeth Secord



The sisters hope to help people realize more and more that things they buy cannot fulfill them. “If you are connected to the Earth, you’re fulfilled,” she said. “I see God in the Earth. I see God in all of life.”

In his encyclical, “Laudato si,’ on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis wrote: “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: Everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”

Marking the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace launched a new website dedicated to the document and efforts throughout the world to put its teaching into practice.

The site — www.laudatosi.va — “witnesses not only to the impact of the encyclical, but also the creativity and generosity of the people of God everywhere in the world,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, council president.

Sisters of Mercy, said Sister Quinn, consider care of the Earth a “critical concern.”

They seek to address that concern through mercy and ecology. “Mercy is compassion” and includes “compassion for Earth and all living things,” Sister Secord said. 

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth,” the pope wrote.

People need to “get with it,” Sister Cloutier said, and realize the severity of climate change and humans’ effect on the Earth.

“Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change,” the pope said.

To arrange a visit to Mercy Farm, call 802-537-4531.

Article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer.
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