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It wasn't easy for monks to quit farming

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 12/09/2010 9:15 AM

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PEOSTA, Iowa — Abbot Brendan Freeman said New Melleray Abbey's decision to quit farming did not come easily.

"We were founded in Iowa in 1849 by monks from Ireland seeking refuge from the famine," Freeman said. "Bishop Mathias Loras gave them 600 acres, and they bought another 600 acres from the government for $1.25 per acre. They built a little wooden monastery and started farming with horses."

Through the years more land was acquired. Today, New Melleray Abbey owns 3,400 acres, 1,100 acres are woodland, the second largest privately owned forest in Iowa. The monks were honored as Iowa Woodland Managers of the Year in 1998.

The monks made enough money during the Civil War selling cattle and hogs to Hog Ryan, who owned a Galena, Ill., packing plant, to build their church. He supplied meat to the Union forces. The monks ran their cattle across the frozen Mississippi.

When Freeman came in 1958, New Melleray was a huge family farm with chickens, hogs, beef and dairy cattle and grain. There were 150 monks working and praying together.

"In the 1960s we realized that some farm ventures were not making any money," Freeman said. "The first to go was the dairy herd."

After the Second Vatican Council, community numbers dwindled. The monks got out of hogs in the 1960s, fat cattle in the 1970s, eventually sold the purebred cattle and became a grain farm. In the 1960s the monastery operated an alfalfa dehydrating plant making alfalfa pellets for cattle feed. That business ended when natural gas and gasoline prices skyrocketed in the 1970s.

In the 1980s New Melleray Abbey decided to go organic gradually certifying 1,200 of 1,800 tillable acres.

"We began to realize that income was going down, down, down on the farm, and expenses were going up and up," Freeman said. "We didn't have enough monks to run all the farming operations so we hired people to work for us."

Today there are 35 monks, and the average age is 70. There are new vocations, but they are from urban areas.

In the mid-1990s the monks started making wooden caskets from monastery timber as another source of income. The business took off. Trappist Caskets now builds and sells 1,200 wooden caskets per year.

Freeman said organic farming was hit especially hard by the recent recession.

"Our organic corn and alfalfa were selling for almost the same price as conventional crops," Freeman said.

He admits that they tried to convert to organic too quickly, and the weeds got ahead of them.

"If you don't control the weeds, they take over the fields," Freeman said. "We have a very good farm crew, but they just couldn't keep up with the weeds, and then prices fell apart. We were losing money on the farm."

Last year the monks rented out 800 acres. That went well, but the ground that they farmed didn't do well due to poor weather.

This year they decided to rent the entire farm in 2011 to two neighbors. The organic Angus beef herd was sold in October.

Because machinery quickly loses value, they decided to auction their farm equipment.

"It's frightening because we're selling all this machinery, and we'll never get into farming again," Freeman said. "To buy machinery to get back into farming would be prohibitive."

There are 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States and most got out of farming years ago. Because each monastery must be self supporting, communities now make fruit cakes, cheese and candy.

"We're putting our hope in the casket business although renting the land will bring income," Freeman said. "It's a big step for us even ideologically and emotionally. We've prided ourselves on working our land and being good stewards."

In the lease the monks stipulated among other things that no GMOs, no anhydrous ammonia and no Roundup could be used on the farm. The renters are okay with that, Freeman said.