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Save Family Farms, Bishops Urge : Catholic Statement Calls for Strong U.S. Policy Measures

Times Religion Writer

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, alarmed about the increased ownership of land in the hands of a few, today released a new chapter of their draft pastoral letter on the U.S. economy that urges strong public policy measures to preserve mid-sized family farms.

“It is precisely the family farmer who is suffering most in the current American farm crisis,” the 4,000-word statement says. “As pastors, we cannot stand by while thousands of farm families . . . lose their homes, their land, their way of life.”

The statement, released today to the nation’s 181 dioceses for review, will be incorporated into a major, 55,000-word comprehensive pastoral calling for a bold “new experiment in economic democracy” that will be refined and completed next year.

The first draft of the letter, which did not include the new section, stirred instant controversy because it proposes dramatic changes in the economy to benefit the poor and is critical of some Reagan Administration policies.

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The food and agriculture chapter advocates revamping current government policies--including farm income support programs, price support payments and tax policies--to benefit moderate-size farms rather than large landholders.

American Catholic bishops have become increasingly vocal in the public policy arena in recent years. They issued a controversial pastoral in 1983 on nuclear disarmament that took issue with the U.S. Administration policy that nuclear deterrence is morally justified as a long-range peacekeeping measure. And in March, the bishops opposed funding for the MX missile.

But the hierarchy’s involvement in the quality of rural life dates to the Great Depression, when the bishops issued a pastoral letter expressing concern over the fate of rural families being forced off the land. And for more than a decade, they have advocated tax changes to discourage the accumulation of large landholdings.

The current farm situation has also drawn the attention of other church bodies. The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church said Monday in a statement that avoided specific policy recommendations that the rural crisis demands “our most creative action.”

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“We are pained by the anguish of those experiencing this crisis and alarmed at the prospects of a future without the stabilizing and life-giving contributions of a healthy rural America,” the Methodist bishops said in a 2 1/2-page letter being mailed to the denomination’s 39,000 local churches. The statement was adopted unanimously at the council’s recent meeting in Seattle.

According to the Catholic bishops’ draft, family ownership of mid-sized farms--defined as those doing $40,000 to $200,000 in business annually--protects against concentration of power and offers a greater chance of public response in the crucial food sector of the economy.

The statement blames the federal government for mushrooming farm bankruptcies. It says government policies have promoted the growth of large farms and encouraged the use of large-scale equipment and energy-intensive farming techniques as substitutes for family or hired labor.

“As . . . farm businesses close, other rural businesses and farm suppliers lose customers and jobs, and rural communities further lose the tax base needed to provide basic services,” the draft observes.

Bishop Edward O’Rourke of Peoria, Ill., a specialist in farm issues and an adviser to the five-bishop committee drafting the pastoral letter, entitled “Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” recently wrote his parishioners that “My urban friends presume that the farmers who are facing foreclosure are paying for their own mistakes.”

“While this is true in a few cases, the core of the present farm crisis is due to forces quite beyond the control of the farmers,” O’Rourke said.

To loosen the immediate squeeze, the bishops’ farm statement calls for emergency credit and debt-restructuring programs for family farmers.

Recommended long-term measures include limiting income support programs that are based on the amount of food a farmer produces to those “genuinely needing” income assistance, and “a strict upper limit on price-support payments that protect farmers when prices fall.”

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Specifically, the draft says, “mandatory production-control programs” may be necessary to hold down costs and fairly distribute the benefits. A footnote to the draft suggests that wheat, feed grains, cotton and rice could be added to peanuts and tobacco--the present commodities under government production control.

The draft also calls for tax changes that would discourage agriculture investments by non-farmers seeking tax shelters because such shelters “disproportionately benefit large and well-financed farming operations.” And the statement urges good-faith collective bargaining, calling on farmers to “end their opposition to farm worker unionization efforts.”

A section on “stewardship of the natural endowment” emphasizes farmers’ responsibilities for soil and water conservation, avoiding environmentally damaging farm practices and keeping farmland in food production rather than non-farm use.

“The food and agriculture chapter highlights all natural resources in a larger overview,” Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, head of the pastoral drafting committee, said in a telephone interview. “Food and agriculture are but one aspect of ecology and good stewardship . . . but this sector is limited and exhaustible, and must be replaced by man.”

Before releasing the first draft of the economics pastoral last November, the drafting committee consulted 125 experts in business, economics, theology and government. Food and agriculture emerged so often as critical issues that the committee decided to extend talks on that area and develop it as a separate chapter.


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