Rural Life Day connects farmers and faith

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | March 14, 2013

Schroepfer and her husband, Terry, run a 700-acre farm that has been in Terry’s family since 1951. Sharon, who also grew up on a farm, is also music director at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Neva. The parish will host one of this year’s Rural Life Day events on March 20.

Spring begins March 20. And the rural community of the Diocese of Green Bay will celebrate the new season with prayer, blessings and a luncheon. The annual Rural Life Day events will take place March 20 and 21. The intention is to pray for successful spring plantings and an abundant harvest in fall, and both days will begin with 10:30 a.m. Mass. The theme this year is “Celebrating the Fruits of Labor and Faith.”

Bishop Robert Morneau will be the celebrant at St. Wenceslaus Church, N5340 Church Road, Neva, on Wednesday, March 20.

Bishop David Ricken, who served as president of the National Rural Life Conference from 2001 to 2005, will be celebrant at St. Edward, Mackville (N2926 State Road 47, Appleton), on Thursday, March 21.

Both events include blessings of seeds, animals and farm equipment, prayers for a fruitful growing season and noon dinner with a speaker to follow. This year’s dinner speaker will be Fr. Mike Betley, pastor of St. John-Sacred Heart, Sherwood/St. John; St. Mary, Hilbert; and St. Mary, Stockbridge. He plans to base his talk on the book, “The Land Remembers,” which is about a farm in southwestern Wisconsin.

Fr. Betley grew up in Green Bay, but his grandparents had a farm in Pulaski, where he spent many summers. He added that he consciously chose to serve in rural parishes over the last 26 years: first at St. Paul in Plainfield, on the westernmost edge of the diocese for 12 years; then at the parishes in Niagara, Pembine, Florence and Aurora at the northern edge of the diocese for nine years and now in Sherwood, Hilbert and Stockbridge.

“I would sing its praises (rural life),” he said. “I’ve consciously chosen rural life. It’s Catholic Christian community — you know everybody and everything about everybody and you have to live with that to pull together a church. You aren’t strangers.”

Each of the parishes where Fr. Betley has served are over 100 years old and St. John recently marked 150 years. He marvels at the history he’s seen celebrated.

“The people who came there really had to work that land,” the priest said. “And one of the first things they did was to establish a church. It was as central part of who they were. … And (it) was a source of identity for the community.”

Of course, there are also troubles for the rural community, he acknowledges.

“When I served in the north and the west,” he said, “the towns were dying. We had no jobs and our young people could not stay.”

Sharon Schroepfer knows the troubles facing the rural communities, but added that, for each of her four adult children, the fact that they had grown up on a farm actually made them very desirable to employers.

“For my own kids, when they went out for employment, that is one thing that (employers) looked at: the farming background. Generally, they’re working on the farm from a young age.”

Her son, Cody, still works on the farm and handles combining. He, however, doesn’t love the dairy aspect of farming, as his father does. The Schroepfers milk 150 head in a herd of 300.

“Our older son is thinking we should go a different route,” Sharon Schroepfer said, adding that it’s a general trend. “No one wants to milk.”

Deb Wegner-Hohensee coordinates Rural Life for the diocese. She says that concerns for farmers and others in agriculture-related business centers around the drought.

“I know a number of farmers have had to cull their herds,” she said. “Because of the drought, there hasn’t been enough feed, so they have to cull the animals. So now you’ll see more of a meat shortage, and of milk.”

The drought has had varied effects around the diocese, with the southwest hit harder than the north. A late spring frost in 2012 destroyed cherries in Door County, while lower levels on Lake Michigan are also a concern for commercial fishing.

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, signed by President Obama on Jan. 2, 2013, extended the current U.S. farm bill (in law since 2008) for nine months, which prevented milk prices from doubling, but the bill has needed revisions for some time and these are not being addressed, according to farm advocates.

“The main concern is always the money issue,” Schroepfer said. “We’re not paid a lot for product. Gas, corn fertilizer, all that is expensive. … You just never know what’s going to happen. With milk prices — you’re never sure. People think you’re making these enormous prices because of the prices in the stores. But that’s not what we make.”

Still, she wouldn’t trade her farm life. And she wants people to come to Rural Life Day to learn about why she loves it.

“We’re excited that it’s at our parish,” Schroepfer said. “We are a rural community and the whole group is excited about it. We’re going to make it big this year.”

This year, she promises lots of farm equipment that actually works in the field, not just new machines from implement dealers. Her son is bringing his combine. There will be animals and everyone is invited to bring seeds and soil — even from their home gardens — to be blessed.

“It isn’t an easy life, but there’s something almost magical about it,” said Schroepfer, whose family hosted the Langlade County “Breakfast on the Farm” last June. It was a big undertaking and put a strain on resources, she said, but those who attended were so grateful. And a calf was born for visitors to see.

“You just realize how very blessed you are,” Schroepfer said. “It may be difficult, but what God has given is so much more than any difficulties in life. I hope they get that when they come to that Mass. How special our lives are, no matter what it we’re doing.”

Tickets for the Rural Life Day dinners must be purchased in advance and are $7.50. Call the two parishes directly to order:

St. Wenceslaus at (715) 627-2126 or (715) 623-2024 or (715) 623-4938;

St. Edward at (920) 733-9266. Dinner tickets will not be sold at the door. No tickets are needed to attend either Mass.

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