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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

Connected to the land

Trappists put 3,000 acres to use with organic farming, forest preservation -- and coffin-making

Peosta, Iowa

The monks at New Melleray Abbey, south of Dubuque, Iowa, near Peosta, in the midst of rolling, partly forested hills, have farmed their land for more than 150 years. Recently the management of their cropland and timber has drawn praise from local and national environmental organizations.

New Melleray’s limestone walls rise above the nearby fields like an old feudal manor house. Housed inside are 36 Trappist monks, who live a life of prayer, work and hospitality to guests.

A visit to the abbey’s church demonstrates the monks’ efforts to stay connected with the land on which they live. The solid oak of the stalls, the plain granite altar and the abundant light streaming in the tall stone arched windows keep one mindful of the Midwestern landscape outside.

Founded in 1849, the monastery owns nearly 3,000 acres including 1,800 acres of cropland, 800 acres of woodland, and the abbey grounds. New Melleray’s timberland is the second largest privately owned forest in Iowa.

New Melleray’s abbot, Dom Brendan Freeman, explained that in the early 1990s, with some outside assistance, the monastery organized a farm committee that was later broadened to include all the community’s natural resources: not only farmland, but also woods, garden, waterways, lawns and landscapes. After a year of deliberation, the community decided to move into sustainable agriculture.

“This was a big step for us since our farm was our main source of income,” Freeman told NCR.

“Our founders arrived from Ireland in 1849 and began breaking up the prairie immediately. We’ve been a farming community ever since.”

Over the years the monks followed the common practices of the majority of U.S. farmers, increasing production by means of chemical fertilizers, dealing with pests and weeds by spraying pesticides and herbicides.

In moving away from the kind of farming practiced by most of their neighbors the monks were motivated by two values in particular, according to Freeman. “The first was our responsibility to be good stewards of our natural resources. We don’t own them. They will be here after we’re gone. We have a responsibility to preserve them.”

The second value was the environmental revolution, specifically society’s move toward organic food. Now 600 acres of the monks’ cropland are certified organic. Rows of soybeans, oats, alfalfa and corn grow in the summer fields. The soybeans are sold as far away as Japan. Other crops provide feed for animals whose meat will be sold with the “organic” label.

Preparations are underway, and soon the monastery itself will begin raising organic beef and lamb, according to Freeman.

Dave Ruden, New Melleray’s farm manager, is a close neighbor. He says he looks forward to the short drive to work every day “because what we’re doing here is so exciting to me.”

Ruden told NCR that going organic was “like jumping off a cliff. There’s no going back once you decide to work chemical-free, but we’ve had very good results with our organic row crops.”

Every year Ruden puts in a demonstration plot. He plants rows of corn the conventional way, with varying applications of chemical fertilizer. Then he plants a couple of organic rows, free of pesticide, herbicide or fertilizer. He contends that the fall harvest will show no difference between rows grown organically and those grown conventionally, proving that those fertilizers are unnecessary, providing the farmer cares for soil fertility. So far he has never been proven wrong.

Last year the monks had a record corn harvest, establishing a new record of 182 bushels per acre. “It was due to Dave Ruden’s expert management,” said Dom Freeman, “and, of course, the plans of the Creator.”

The monastery’s head gardener, Br. Placid Zilka, each year tends long rows of corn, beets, squash, green beans and peas. His many garden plots are tucked here and there in the rolling landscape behind the abbey itself.

A greenhouse full of tomatoes sits next to the large orchard, where yellow cherries, apricots, peaches and apples ripen.

Zilka navigates his way around the fields in an old Ford pickup.

He peels a turnip, holding the stem in his hand with the body of the turnip up, calling it the “ice cream cone” of the garden, then he pulls a carrot, scrapes off the dirt and offers a taste.

Zilka has been at New Melleray since 1955. In his 70s now, he manages vegetable and fruit production for the monastery’s dining room, feeding both monks and the host of guests who come to New Melleray every year.

While Ruden uses the latest global positioning satellite technology to line up his soybean rows, Zilka uses an ancient tractor and plow to dig the monastery’s yearly potato crop, firing the tractor’s motor up every year, hoping and praying it will work one more time. In early summer when his beans need weeding, he calls out all the monks to walk up and down the rows, armed with hoes.

Ruden navigates the overgrown logging roads through the monks’ forest, passing stands of oak, hickory, European larch, walnut, red pine and birch. “One day I was out here with the forester at the edge of the woods,” he said. “We looked out into the nearby field, and it looked like it was moving. It was a deer herd with so many members that it seemed the whole field was on the march. It’s the care the monks have taken of their forest that makes these large populations possible.”

Following a woodland stewardship plan developed with Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources, four timber improvement projects have been completed and nearly 16,000 tree seedlings were planted recently, bringing the total planted in 40 years to 140,000, according to Ruden. A certified tree farm, the abbey grounds are also an official wildlife refuge. An annual tour of the farm and woodland is conducted for the local community.

Several years ago the monastery was named “Iowa’s Woodland Owner of the Year” by the state Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Pine, oak, maple, ash and walnut logs are harvested to make coffins that are sold by the Trappists.

“People seem to like the idea of being buried in an honest wooden casket that was handcrafted by monks,” said Freeman.

At the casket factory, manager Sam Mulgrew happily guides visitors on a tour of the assembly line, beginning with the planing of the rough-cut lumber and moving on to the building where the boards are cut and routed in a technique called raised panel joinery. The casket operations are housed in several renovated farm buildings behind the abbey. The main workshop is a 100-year-old wood-frame building several hundred yards from the abbey.

The casket business has been in operation four years now and helps support the monastery. Mulgrew says it’s been successful. “Making caskets is a fitting occupation for these monks. These are spiritual men who value the integrity of fine workmanship and the economy of living by their hands.”

Nine monks and 10 lay people work in the casket operation. No nails are used in making the solid wood caskets. They feature intricate joints and compound miters for seamless interlocks. All caskets meet or exceed industry standards for strength and size. The components are carefully sanded and assembled, then stained and varnished. Upholstery is applied on some models. Custom caskets made to individual specifications are an option.

The finished caskets are sold directly to the public at reasonable prices on a Web site. Samples are on display in the monastery’s gift shop. The most elaborate, with raised paneling and mitred corners, sells for about $1,485. A plain pine box sells for about $575.

Clients for pre-need coffins, which are stored at the monastery then shipped when needed, include Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

For years the monastery relied upon guest donations, the Social Security checks of older monks and the sale of crops. However, this income failed to cover all medical expenses. Now caskets take their place along with other items produced by monks to support U.S. monasteries.

“Seventy percent of the lumber we use to make caskets comes from sustainable sawmill and logging operations in the state,” said Sam Mulgrew. “And we have a full-time forester, Bill Haywood, who works the monks’ timber, harvesting the rest of our lumber for us right here on the land.”

“Keep death before one’s eyes daily,” says the Rule of St. Benedict. For Trappists, there is beauty in death, because it is treated as a natural part of life. “We don’t hide what happens to the body at death or interfere with the natural process of returning to the earth,” said Freeman.

Every day the monks mark the passage of the sun from horizon to horizon, singing the divine office during matins, lauds, vespers and compline. The journey the sun makes in a year can be measured outside by the plantings, fruitings and harvestings in the orchards, garden and fields.

Wild geese will be winging over New Melleray soon on their way south for the winter as pumpkins ripen in Zilka’s plots. Then some time later the farm crews will condition their planters and tractors for the green rendezvous called spring.

Rich Heffern is an NCR columnist. His e-mail address is heffern@diocesekcsj.org.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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