Looking out over the acres of farmland on the grounds of the Shrine of St. Anthony in Ellicott City, Maryland, Friar Michael Lasky, OFM Conv., wondered how the bucolic retreat could minister directly to the poor.
The Shrine of St. Anthony is a thriving center of Franciscan ministry. Open to the public 365 days a year, the Shrine provides a refuge for prayerful reflection for the expanding population of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Yet, as the Director of the Our Lady of the Angels Province’s Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC), Friar Michael imagined something to make this land even more fruitful.
In collaboration with the Shrine of St. Anthony, Mary’s Land Farm, and the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, the JPIC office of the Our Lady of the Angels Province is embarking on a new vision for a farm ministry in Ellicott City. Named after the Portiuncula, in English “little portion,” the tiny church in Assisi that served as the early home of St. Francis and his first friars, the new Little Portion Farm will convert the Friars’ acres to organic farmland.
For many years, the Friars have leased 85 acres to a tenant farmer. Using the standard methods of farming in industrial countries, the farmer planted one crop on the entire 85-acres each year, requiring extensive use of chemical herbicides and pesticides to protect the vulnerable monoculture. Heavy chemical applications over the years have resulted in soil that is sterile and depleted of nutrition.
Each year the tenant farmer alternated between commodity crops grown not for human consumption, but rather to be processed into fuel like ethanol, food additives like corn syrup, or feed for industrial livestock production. In short, as the products of the farm were not destined to strengthen human life, they were not fulfilling the mission of the Church and the Franciscan Friars.
Thus, the friars looked for a different method of farming to deliver different outcomes.
Mary’s Land Farm, a 160-acre permaculture farm nearby, is owned and operated by Mr. Thomas Cunningham, a faithfilled Catholic and regular communicant at the Shrine of St. Anthony. His farm will lease 82 acres of the Friars’ land, converting it to organic pasture on which it will raise grass-fed beef and lamb. The animals will help return the soil to a healthy state as will the different kinds of grasses the field will host. The conversion to pasture will also virtually eliminate erosion. Additionally, the organically fed, ethically-raised animals will become part of the area food supply. Cunningham is excited to help those who are less fortunate. “The people who need it the most do without the nutrition they need,” Cunningham said.
The heart of Little Portion Farm, though, is a three-acre parcel reserved for the Friars’ direct service to the poor. On these acres, the Friars will grow organic produce exclusively for the hot meal program at the Franciscan Center in Baltimore. The meal program at the Center feeds 700 of the most vulnerable, food insecure men, women, and children in central Baltimore, five days per week. Founded in 1968 by the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore, the Franciscan Center’s mission is to provide assistance and supportive outreach to persons who are economically disadvantaged, assisting them in realizing their self-worth and dignity as people of God. After 50 years of service in Baltimore, the Franciscan Center continues to find new ways to fulfill its mission.
Working in collaboration with the leadership of the Franciscan Center and Mary’s Land Farm, Little Portion Farm will grow a large quantity of staple vegetables used in their meal preparation daily, like onions, carrots, potatoes, and leafy greens. This will create greater reliability of fresh, local, organic ingredients for daily food preparation and it will reduce the budget needed for food purchases.
Jeff Griffin, Franciscan Center executive director, said the partnership will allow the center to serve fresher meals and add fresh produce to food pantry bags at a lower cost. Savings will be used to hire additional personnel to teach cooking lessons. The best parts are “bringing fresh food to a community that is not used to having easy access to fresh produce and seeing all these communities come together to help those in need,” said Griffin.
While the primary mission of the farm is to grow food to feed the hungry in Baltimore, a key element of the ministry will be to share the site to promote a Franciscan vision of care for the poor and care for creation, as exemplified in Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, and Catholic Social Teaching, to the wider public. Little Portion Farm will provide volunteer and educational opportunities allowing the public a chance to work on the land from planting to harvest. Also, the public will learn how care for the poor and care for creation intersect in the act of farming.
“Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, came out after the initiative for Little Portion Farm began, but Father Michael said it served as another driving force to make change. “It’s all about relationships. We hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, and then we respond in partnership with others to help restore creation and to feed the hungry as God intends for us to do.”
With the generosity of our Companions, the Friars hired a farm outreach coordinator to manage operations at Little Portion Farm. Matt Jones will work with Mary’s Land Farm to plan the crop selection as well as the planting and harvesting schedule, coordination of volunteers, and delivery of produce. In addition, the outreach coordinator will work with Fr. Michael to educate the public about the Franciscan understanding of caring for God’s creation while caring for the poor.
Sharing his commitment to these goals, Matt Jones said “The ways we grow and distribute food reveal a great deal about how we are living out our call to care for creation and the poor,” said Jones. Sharing his commitment to the goals of this new ministry, Jones concluded, “This farm is one modest, integrated solution to these important issues that we hope will nurture the vulnerable and plant the seeds for future change. I’m excited to work for the Friars because they understand this reality and its importance to living out our faith.” †
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