"I am a Catholic farmer. That is my identity. I used to think that they were separate things, but after years of farming, I now understand that my faith and my occupation are molded together as I live out my vocation on the land with my family. I could say with accuracy that I am an American farmer, a family farmer and a corn farmer, but I truly believe that faith, farming and rural life go naturally together. I havenít come to this conclusion through some epiphany. The people of faith around me, my wife and children, my parents and in-laws, my extended family and of course, our parish priests and nuns as well as neighbors and close friends, have provided me with hundreds of experiences proving this to be true. This book is about what those important role models in my life have taught me about my vocation on the land.
I am living out a childhood dream. When I gaze across our farmyard on a still evening and look up into a sky so filled with stars that it is almost bright, the awe of the dark expanses of space isolates me as a tiny speck in a magnificent universe. On this farm where I live, my grandfather probably looked up from the steps of the old farmhouse and felt the same way. In those days, farmers worked under that grand universal sky every day, walking behind horses plowing sod under the burning sun, or strolling on a green mat of grass tending cattle on the prairie. Nature wasnít something they had to look for. Farm animals, wildlife and the elements of wind and sun, rain and snow and all of Godís creation were there before them.
Today, we farmers are often confined behind steel and glass, operating tractors from a pilotís seat in an air-conditioned, stereo-filled cab, gliding above the soil. There are days when a farmer might leave the breakfast table, walk a few feet to a tractor cab and work from that cab, driving back and forth, up and down row upon row of crops all day, without stepping foot on the soil or breathing air in the open. He or she might spend the entire day behind a desk or at a computer monitor, checking grain prices, updating farm records and feed rations or taking inventory of livestock.
Pastoral lifestyles are viewed by urban dwellers as idyllic in many ways, peaceful and quiet. The truth is not always idyllic. Farming is one of the most difficult occupations there is. Earning a living from the land is like our Catholic faith, because some of the greatest rewards come from the daily challenges. Many farmers in northeast Nebraska where we live, who operate on 600 acres like we do, are too big to be hobby farmers, but are too small to earn a full time living solely from the land. Many of us send our spouses off to work in town, our young children to a baby sitter or to school and then leave the farm ourselves to work another job, just so we can afford health insurance for our families.
I can look around my neighborhood on some days, knowing that many of the farms are unoccupied, because the farmer and his family are all working elsewhere and trying to farm Ė a full-time job in itself Ė in their "spare time". Rising costs and plummeting farm commodity prices have changed the economics of family farming in recent years. To make a living solely from a farm with conventional production methods, farmers have to cover four times the number of acres my parents did when they farmed here.
For most of us though, the rewards of a rural life, a life on the land for our families, far outweigh any challenges we face. My wife, Donna, and I feel honored to carry on a family tradition as the fourth generation of Arenses to live and work the home place. Donna teaches English, Reading and Literature and is the 8th grade homeroom teacher at St. Rose of Lima School in our hometown of Crofton. Itís the same school I attended as a youngster. In addition to farming full time - raising cattle, hogs, corn, soybeans, oats, wheat, alfalfa, sunflowers and a few Christmas trees - I work as a free lance ag journalist to help cover the bills. Our children, the reason why farm life is so important to us, are quite young. Daughter Lauren is 7 and a first-grader at St. Rose School. Daughter Taylor is 5 and canít wait to start school. Our son, Zachary, is a year old and already owns a stable of toy tractors, just as his Daddy had.
Farmers today may not be as close to nature and the Almighty Creator as farmers of the past, but we are still more in touch with the ecosystems God created than most people. When Pope John Paul II was introduced to a farmer during his visit to the Living History Farms near Des Moines, Iowa in October 1979, he told him, "We are all farmers." Of course, the great pontiff was speaking of sowing the seeds of faith. He compared his vocation of fulfilling the legacy of St. Peter with the farmerís legacy of sowing seeds and producing food, all with Godís abundant help. He knew what he was talking about, because long before he was pope, Father Karol Wojtylaís first priestly assignment was as assistant pastor with the rural Assumption of Our Lady Church in the isolated Polish village of Niegowic. While serving there, he not only celebrated daily Mass, but lived with the farm folks from his tiny parish, teaching religion in the regionís five elementary schools, working beside farmers in the fields and making regular pilgrimages into the countryside to pray. Pope John Paul II knew there was something inherently sacred about rural life.
In my mind, the real connection with Christ for Catholic farmers and folks who love rural life comes in the Eucharist. Of all the mediums Jesus could have chosen in which to be truly present with us, He chose bread and wine, wheat bread that human hands have made, and wine, fruit of the vine. The fact that he selected these simple products of the land not as symbols, but as true mediums for consecration into his Body and Blood, was a sacred act that solidifies my devotion as a Catholic and as a farmer. I see it as a sign that those of us caring for the land, raising crops and tending livestock, are truly blessed.
Sharing my faith stories in this book has been a difficult undertaking for me, because I have always viewed faith as a private endeavor. I write this as an imperfect farmer who has a few weedy fields (just ask my neighbors), and as a husband, father and Catholic Christian still seeking answers to faith questions. But I hope when you read these stories that you will discover Ė on my farm and in my fields, with my family and friends and in my rural faith community Ė the true blessings of God, His Eucharist and His creation that I appreciate so much. Thatís why, even in challenging times, I find plenty of reasons to celebrate my blessed life on the land."~~Curt Arens
Excerpt from Chapter 7 Ė Married With Children (Back to Top)
"It is true that kids say and do the most entertaining and embarrassing things, at least in the eyes of their parents. During a Christmas Eve Mass, when Lauren was about three years old, Father Bob asked all of the children in church to sit before the altar, so he could read a special Christmas story to them.
I took three-year-old Laurenís hand and led her along the outside aisle toward the front of the altar where Father was already sitting, and children were gathering, facing him. I whispered to Lauren, "Go sit by Father." She took my meaning literally. While the other kids faced Father, she plopped down beside him, leaning on his knee. I stood along the aisle, waiting to see what she would do. Father began reading a lovely childrensí Scriptural rendition of the Christmas story. About the time the innkeeper sent Mary and Joseph to the stable for the night in the story, Lauren grasped Fatherís vestments gently and whispered in his ear, "I have to go potty."
Father smiled and replied quickly, without hesitation, "Go right ahead." Then he began reading again.
Lauren trotted toward me, so I could take her to the bathroom, but she stopped short of where I was standing. Spinning around, she said rather loudly, holding her hand up in the air, "But Iíll be right back." Everyone in the front pew saw what had happened and burst into laughter."_____________________
"This past summer, I awoke one morning to the sound of hogs on the loose, snorting and digging in Donnaís flowerbeds. I ran to the barn to fix the fence they had broken and lure them back into their pen. Taylor charged from the house wearing her pajamas and sandals, ready to assist.
"Just stand there by the machine shed and yell at the hogs when they come near," I told her while frantically trying to round up 60-head of hogs, with several romping down our driveway and others milling around inside the shed. I prayed for help from the Good Shepherd, hoping He might be a decent hog man, too. A group of ten hogs ran from the shed - stopping in their tracks to look at Taylor.
"Get back in the pen, you pigs," Taylor yelled with authority, raising her arms above her head. They snorted and turned toward the barnís open door, back into the pen where they belonged. Taylor and I spent two hours luring the free-roaming swine safely into their pen. After we had successfully accomplished our mission, we walked to the house together, sweaty and smelly, but satisfied we had corralled all of the escapees."
Excerpt from Chapter 3 Ė Haystack With a View (Back to Top)
"Fluffy snowflakes began to fall, softly coating everything. I was grown now, feeding cows one evening in our hay lot, where we pile all of the big round bales of alfalfa and prairie hay for the winter, so they are accessible to feed the cows through the snowy months. Our farm dog jumped up effortlessly onto a long row of bales. I paused from my work, stepped off the tractor and leaned on one of the bales near where the dog was playing. She sat down beside my arm and I stroked her ears. I recalled those early evenings when I was a kid, lying on my back in the hay, and pondering life and God from the majestic top of a haystack. Looking into the dogís dark eyes, I thought about what my parents and grandparents have taught me about God and family.
As I stood in the snow, I glanced over to the house, lit softly against the misty dusk. I prayed that night to be a good and faithful husband and father, like I imagine St. Joseph was to Mary and Jesus.
Sometimes, I think Iíve failed in those departments. Iím too impatient with my kids. I raise my voice with them. I donít hand on my faith as clearly and as regularly as I should. When Iím tired from fieldwork or worried about hailstorms, drought or what always seems to be impending poverty, Iím often short and terse with my wife. I procrastinate, especially with jobs around the house, and I know it drives an organizer, like Donna, absolutely crazy. I often feel inadequate in my role. I donít work hard enough. Iím not as jolly as my grandfather was or as pious as my grandmother. But I ask the Holy Spirit to guide me. I resolve in my heart to just keep trying to do better.
I confide all of these insecurities with the dog, because sheís such a good listener. The young pup wags her tail and pants in my face, eager enough to forgive me my trespasses."
Beginning in January 2008, you can read more by purchasing "Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land" by Curt Arens, from ACTA Publications at www.actapublications.org or visit your local Catholic bookstore or favorite online bookseller.