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Keeping the faith —

By Staff | Oct 16, 2009

This photo, hanging at Living History Farms, shows some of the nearly 350,000 people who gathered at Living History Farms on Oct. 4, 1979, where Pope John Paul II addressed the crowd.

DES MOINES – When central Iowa farmer Joe Hays sat at his kitchen table 30 years ago to write Pope John Paul II a letter, it seemed simple enough. The pontiff would be in the vicinity during his American pilgrimage in 1979, so a trip to the heartland made sense. But what chance did a farmer have, inviting the Pope to rural Iowa?

Perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance, it turned out. When Pope John Paul II left America’s East Coast cities en route to Des Moines, nearly 350,000 people gathered in the fields surrounding Living History Farms on Oct. 4, 1979, to hear the spiritual leader.

As a chill wind blew, the Pope celebrated a harvest-time Mass and detailed the reasons why the church highly esteems farmers. The sacred event inspired reverence in Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

“I was a college student at Iowa State University at the time and was one of the thousands of non-Catholics who attended the Mass,” said Bill Northey, a farmer from Spirit Lake, who serves as Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture. “The Pope’s visit was a very important event for Iowa, and on the 30th anniversary, it’s time to take inventory, see where we’re at, and determine where we want agriculture to go.”

21st century solutions

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's visit to Iowa, panelists at Dowling High School in West Des Moines discussed opportunities and challenges in modern agriculture. From left are speakers Dr. Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation; Ron Rosmann, a farmer from western Iowa; Dr. Matt Liebman from Iowa State University; and Bill Northey, Iowa's secretary of agriculture.

Today, Iowa agriculture remains a balancing act of production, resource conservation and environmental quality, said Dr. Matt Liebman, chairman of ISU’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, who participated in a panel discussion last week about “Opportunities and Challenges in Agriculture” marking the 30th anniversary of the Pope’s visit.

“In October 1979, Pope John Paul II urged gratitude to God for the gift of working with this land, generosity towards others in sharing the bounty of this land and stewardship in caring for this land for future generations,” Liebman said. “Our challenge in the 21st century is determining how to produce enough food and farm income while protecting the environment.”

Liebman explained how scientists are finding answers through various studies at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City. With the help of biologists, researchers are working together to test various aspects of a unique system that integrates perennials into row-crop fields by planting prairie strips on 10 to 20 percent of the area in each sub-watershed.

The goal, Liebman addeed, is to produce row crops successfully while maintaining an appropriate ecological balance. Perennial plants have deep root systems, enabling them to store more carbon than row crops. These plants also have the ability to slow down and “break up” raindrops to allow for better absorption by the plants and the soil.

“The targeted use of perennial plants in buffer strips can make agriculture’s future a lot brighter,” said Liebman, who is seeing a good diversity of perennial plants within the strips and said there has been no evidence so far of increased weed population within the row crops.

A farmer’s perspective

It’s worthwhile to look at options like this, said Ron Rosmann, a Shelby County farmer who runs a 600-acre organic grain and livestock operation. “The Pope’s visit was so important to Iowa, and we need to examine what kind of a job we’ve done in agriculture over the past 30 years.”

During this time, farms have become larger, competition has decreased in the input and processing sectors, absentee landownership has increased, the average age of Iowa farmers has increased, farming has become more industrialized and young people have left the farm, said Rosmann, whose family received the 2006 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture.

“Our son, Daniel, is the only farmer under age 30 in Westphalia, our community of about 80 families and I think that’s sad and significant.”

While some people think organic agriculture means a return to outdated, old-fashioned farming methods, poor yields and practices that are not science-based, nothing could be further from the truth, said Rosmann, who has not used herbicides or pesticides on his farm since 1983.

“We had 200-bushel corn this past year, and our soybean yields in 2007 were over 58.5 bushels,” said Rosmann, a lifelong member of St. Boniface Church in Westphalia. His diversified operation, which includes cattle and hogs, incorporates a six-year crop rotation with corn, soybeans, small grains (oats or barley) and hay. “While I’m not saying all farms should be organic, we do need more organic farms.”

Global food security

The 30th anniversary of the Pope’s visit also highlights the importance of feeding a hungry world. “You who are farmers are stewards of a gift from God, which was intended for the good of all humanity,” noted the Pope in his 1979 homily at Living History Farms. “You have the potential to provide food for the millions who have nothing to eat, and thus help to rid the world of famine.”

This sentiment reflects the life’s work of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Iowa native and Nobel Peace Prize winner whose remarkable lifetime efforts to feed millions of people around the world continues to inspire those concerned with hunger and malnutrition, said Dr. Kenneth Quinn, president of the Des Moines-based World Food Prize.

“Dr. Borlaug always looked at agriculture and food production from the point of view of hungry people,” Quinn said. “Today, the quantity, quality and availability of food are the real questions facing our world, where global food security and ag issues are tied to national security.

“We’ll either have to produce more food on the acres we have in production, or people will cut down forests and other habitat as they try desperately to grow the food they need.”

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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