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Rural Roads to Distributism and Family/Community Farms

Richard Aleman is the Editor of the Distributist Review.

Peter Maurin’s program for the Catholic Worker had an important agricultural aspect. Catholic Workers have always been interested in the Catholic Rural Life Program under the inspiration of Msgr. Luigi Ligutti.

Thanks to David S. Bovee’s new book about the illustrious history of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, The Church and the Land,[i] one of the luminaries who helped shape the rural church in America once again resurfaces: Msgr. Luigi Ligutti. His classic book Rural Roads to Security, published in 1940, thoroughly documents the dramatic effects of capitalism on rural communities. With painstaking detail Rural Roads describes how modern capitalism devastated the agricultural foundations of our country and the necessary repopulation of rural towns to regain independence for the family from the rising servility of dispossession.

St. Isidore the Farmer by Ade Bethune

Aloysius Domenico Ligutti was born on March 21, 1895 in Romans, Italy. Following the death of his father, the teenage Luigi and his mother moved to Iowa where he continued his studies in preparation for the priesthood. After completing seminary in Maryland and graduate studies at Catholic University of America, Ligutti traveled back to his adopted state of Iowa. As pastor of Sacred Heart Ligutti’s turned his attention to the spiritual and material struggles of rural life and Iowa’s deep-rooted farming culture, a culture that has, according to Pope Pius XII, “essentially a family character and is, therefore, very important to the social and economic prosperity of the whole people.”[ii] In 1940, with the mission of bringing “Christ to the Country—the Country to Christ,” Ligutti became the executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference—an organization founded 17 years earlier to serve the needs of the rural church and attract a stronger Catholic presence in pagan-dominated areas.[iii] As the voice of the Catholic rural movement in America, Msgr. Ligutti insisted upon a solid investment in Catholic social doctrine for the future post-depression era.

Published in 1940, Rural Roads to Security was the monsignor’s only book, co-authored with Fr. John C. Rawe, another strong advocate of the Catholic rural life movement. According to the authors, the philosophical and scientific acceptance of economic liberalism led to the loss of family holdings and homesteading. “Material-istic philosophers taught that liberalism, free and unrestrained, would bring the nation to the peak of prosperity.” The promise came true for some as this new era in human history crushed the average American. It encouraged self-interest and sought the elimination of obstacles standing in the way of personal ambition and satisfaction. Without safe-guards to protect against greed, large-scale production drowned small, local producers and entire families were persuaded or left with little choice but to abandon rural towns, move to congested cities, and leave behind “not only ownership of tools, productive property, and control of conditions of labor, but also home ownership as well,” as land and home were discarded for unhealthy shacks near smoking factories. Families were also impacted by the absence of one or both parents causing the loss of childhood experience and high rates of divorce. The farm commercialized in the desire to achieve exponential growth—a fact realized in our age of industrial farms, genetically-modified seed, and lab-created frankenfoods.

Finding common ground with the Distributists of England and the publisher of Free America, American Herbert Agar,[iv] the NCRLC found its ideological basis in Distributism.[v] Under Ligutti the Conference’s publication declared, “We Catholic Agrarian Distributists have long been pointing to the evils that have caused this world-wide catastrophe—Industrialism, commercial-ism, urbanization, concen-tration of economic power.”[vi] The Distributists and Msgr. Ligutti were aware of the labor market’s insecurities. As labor rose, the diversity of productive property shrank. Banishing these evils by broader ownership and management of productive property was crucial and meant the difference between living in a nation of freedom or slavery. Ligutti wrote, “A family should fully control the means of production, otherwise, self-preservation would be jeopardized, being dependent on factors external to it.”[vii] Thinking himself free because he eats, sleeps and shops, the worker “has no plot of land, no tools, no small enterprises,” and thanks to “gigantic mergers and extreme concentration of ownership” institutionalized wage slavery increasingly depended upon welfare-based institutions.[viii] As the Distributists and NCRLC argued, restoring economic functions to the family eliminated the concentration and collectivism by corporations and states unconcerned with the quality and distribution of our food or the preservation of mass ownership. In truth, de-centralizing economic power this way appears to be a cheaper alternative to the high expense of doles or the corrupting power of largesse private enterprises.

   “When a poor family becomes an owner of a cow, then communism goes out the back door.” – Msgr. Ligutti to Pope Pius XII

In the 1930s subsistence homesteading allowed fami-lies to settle on a plot of land where they could grow their own food, use their property productively, and provide themselves with a livelihood. Community projects were an important part of this era and homesteading programs were highly advertised by the Catholic press. Government loans made it possible for a homestead unit to buy land and farm buildings, livestock, tractors, and so on. “A farm of 160 acres, purchased for $8000, was divided into thirty-five three-acre plots, fifty-five acres being reserved for community pasture and woodlot, commons and public roads.”[ix] Recognizing an opportunity for resettlement, in 1933 Msgr. Ligutti secured a loan from the Subsistence Home Division to resettle fifty families on two to eight acre plots. These families worked the land part-time while holding down other employment in nearby mines. In just two years Granger families were off relief. Government loan repayments were almost 100 percent—a rate of return unheard of even today.

Catholics favorably lent support for these types of rural projects for several reasons. From a practical standpoint, the social teachings’ push for the widening of productive property finds its greatest avenue in rural life, a setting that provides ample stability and affordability. From a religious perspective living off the land strengthens the practice of Christian virtue and frugality, avoiding the massive spiritual temptations encountered in urban life. This is not to say Catholics should not also live in cities or that agrarian living is void of sin, but time spent working the land helps develop good stewardship and cooperation in God’s creation, because, according to G.K. Chesterton, “nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.” As Distributists saw the aesthetic character of the fields erode with the centralization and the doctrine of mass production, Distributists rallied in support of smallholdings and small communities, the picking of common fruits, making butter and cheese, brewing beer, and sharing these gifts with neighbors, thereby broaden-ing and restoring healthy economic life.

Like the Ligutti home-steads, Distributists also conjured up a scheme to encourage the local pro-duction and consumption of agricultural produce and to bring families “back-to-the-land.” The prolific Domini-can, Fr. Vincent McNabb, a supporter of the Catholic Land Movement sweeping Great Britain in the 1920s and 30s wrote, “Not only will they not worship by desire what is wrong—like Mammon—but they will not desire as a primary good what is only a secondary good. Thus they will leave the ugliness of the town, not for the beauty of the land, but for the beauty of God’s face; they will fly from the disease of the town, not for the health of the body, but for the health of the soul; they will cut the tangled complexity of town life, not for the simple life with nature, but for the quiet life with God.” The Catholic Land Association, a staple of Distributist enterprise, esta-blished training farms across Scotland and England, which also provided new farmers with subsistence farms they could own and manage. The Catholic Land Movement as a whole worked to provide these new farmers with the skills, education, and aid needed to provide for their own sustenance. According to Dr. Peter Chojnowski, “The Scottish Catholic Land Association was soon complemented by similar associations in the Midlands and the North and South of England. By 1934, significant numbers of young men, adopted by the respective Catholic Land Associations, were fully trained in every branch of farming.”[x]

What’s in your food?

Today, restoring small family farms is a priority we can no longer ignore. The 1960s Green Revolution, with its increase of global agricultural production and “salvation from famine” produced high rates of malnutrition and significantly impacted local diets and caused socio-economic problems as well as environmental hazards. Instead of addressing agrarian social reform, tech-nological advances wrought massive debts upon farmers as credit rose to accom-modate new methods of farming. Due to increased agricultural production, huge price drops forced traditional farmers to pack up and move to cities. With farmers out of the picture, the swelling poverty in urban areas fueled further agricultural industrial production of food, which simply rotted away as families couldn’t afford to buy any.

Large-scale agricultural production isn’t the only problem affecting family farms. Multinational corpora-tions deciding what we eat are attacking traditional methods of growing food. GMOs are organisms whose genetic make-up is altered using methods of genetic engineering. Using recom-binant DNA technology, these companies are changing our food supply. Genetically modified ingredients are in almost 75 percent of all processed foods, from cereal to frozen pizza.[xi] But the health problems associated with GMO products are still unknown. What we do know is clinical trials tested on rats have determined that potential risks include liver and reproductive problems, unknown allergens, and death.

The Capitalist’s Redistribution of Property

Under the cover of intellectual property rights, companies like Monsanto, the biggest biotechnology firm to date, can take over a farmer’s property with the blessing of our legal system. Even if patented genes are outcrossed accidentally to another person’s field, the patent holder has the right to control the use of those crops. Under this pretext Monsanto hires private investigators to trespass on other people’s property, extract samples without a farmer’s per-mission, and legally impound his contaminated field as their property. According to a report by the Center for Food Safety, Monsanto has filed over 90 lawsuits against more than 147 farmers and 39 small businesses.[xii] 75 employees and $10 million dollars are devoted to investigating and prosecuting farmers. Unable to pay the enormous legal fees many farmers settle out-of-court. Monsanto has no regard for property rights in what seems to be an effort to either possess more farmland or tie traditional farmers to the patented seeds manufactured by the agricorporation.

Companies like DuPont and Monsanto are given carte blancheto corner the market, thanks in part to the revolving doors between the private and public sector. These reciprocal relationships ensure regulatory capture. Agencies and departments like the Food and Drug Administration or the United States Department of Agriculture are caught in a web of industry interests. In 1994, USDA Secretary Mike Espy resigned following an investigation in which he was accused of accepting favors from agribusiness companies. After leaving the USDA, Espy’s successor, Dan Glickman joined Akin, Gump, Strauss Hauer & Feld, a law firm with a “who’s-who” of agbiotech clients. Ann Veneman, former Director of Calgene, Inc.—the first company to market GMOs—stepped down to serve as USDA Secretary under George W. Bush. Michael Taylor, the FDA

[i] David S. Bovee, The Church and the Land (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010).

[ii] Speech delivered by His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, to the delegates at the Convention of the National Confederation of Farm Owner-Operators.

[iii] Allan Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2004).

[iv] Agar was an American proponent of Distributism, contributor to G.K. Chesterton’s newspaper G.K.’s Weekly and member of the Southern Agrarians.

[v] David S. Bovee, The Church and the Land

[vi] Land and Home, March 1942.

[vii] Luigi Ligutti, Rural Roads to Security (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1940).

[viii] Ibid, p. 32.

[ix] Ralph Borsodi, “Subsistence Homesteads: President Roosevelt’s New Land and Population Policy,” http://newdeal.feri.org/survey/34011.htm.

[x] Dr. Peter Chojnowski, “Flee to the Fields,” The Distributist Review. http://distributistreview.com/mag/2010/11/flee-to-the-fields/.

[xi] Linda Bren, “Genetic Engineering: The Future of Food?” http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps1609/www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2003/603_food.html.

[xii] Center for Food Safety, “Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers” http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/pubs/CFSMOnsantovsFarmerReport1.13.05.pdf.


Houston Catholic Worker, November-December 2012, Vol. XXXIII, No. 5.