Archdiocese suffers, prays as drought begins
by Jessica Langdon
They’ve given up praying for rain.
Now they’re praying for snow.
It’s not even Labor Day yet, but many farmers of the archdiocese are already praying for a snowy, wet winter.
That’s because the rain many desperately needed this summer for their crops and animals to thrive never came.
After the hottest July on record, all of Kansas is suffering severe drought conditions — or worse.
Angela Myers overhears parishioners discussing their desperate need for a wet winter. As parish secretary for St. Francis Xavier Church in Burlington, she knows those same parishioners are struggling with the decision to market animals early because they can’t keep feeding them.
Week after week, she types up the Mass intentions for St. Francis Church, as well as St. Patrick Church in Emerald, St. Joseph Church in Waverly and St. Teresa Church in Westphalia — and they always include prayers for rain.
“People are really affected by this drought,” said Father Marianand Mendem, pastor of those parishes.
Most farmers have already lost corn crops there. Many ranchers had to sell animals at lower prices.
Everyone is praying.
A few hours north in Wheaton, Lisa Moser of the Moser Ranch knows all about praying for rain.
She and her husband Harry Moser go to St. Columbkille Parish in Blaine. They welcome the idea of every parish — rural and urban — joining in their prayers for rain.
After all, what happens in the fields of rural America affects everyone.
On a U.S. drought monitor map issued in mid-August, a maroon-colored swath swallows the archdiocese’s southern counties, indicating “exceptional” drought conditions — the worst category. But no part of Kansas has been left untouched.
As crop estimates reflect.
Trading has turned from something that used to take only a few hours a day into nearly a round-the-clock flurry.
Commodity futures broker, Jerry Stowell, of Country Futures Inc. in Frankfort, deals with livestock and grain producers, and is heavily involved himself in farming and cattle feeding.
“I’ve been doing this since 1978 and I’ve been through three droughts,” said Stowell, a parishioner of Annunciation Church in Frankfort. “I’ve never seen anything that even touches this year.”
This drought “spans from one end of the corn belt to the other.”
“We keep lowering production estimates by the week,” he said in July. “And we just don’t know where it stops.”
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the corn crop to the American food supply chain. Corn is now used in seemingly endless ways, from food to animal feed to ethanol.
The drought means that corn prices have, of course, soared. It costs farmers more to feed their animals, especially because grass is now in shorter supply because of the drought.
That can mean selling early or raising herds to lighter weights — which spells a smaller beef supply down the road.
Bottom line for many: higher food prices.
Although everyone believes things will turn around eventually, life is stressful now.
Myers’ family doesn’t farm, but the drought still hits close to home.
Simply driving through Kansas, she sees fields where farmers planted crops with the highest of hopes.
The dried-out remains remind her of the brittle yellow palms of Palm Sunday.
“That’s exactly what it looks like, just dried-up palm,” she said.
Many people, Harry Moser said, will see their costs go up and not know why.
Prices are set after the products leave the producers, driven by supply and demand.
Eric Gerstner, a parishioner of Annunciation Church in Frankfort, knows people tend to blame farmers when a box of cereal goes up 50 cents.
“We don’t have anything to do with setting the prices,” he said.
And people often think farmers pocket the additional money.
“Usually when prices are high,” he said, “we don’t have much to sell.”
When people see the big equipment rolling through the fields, his wife Brooke said, what they don’t always understand is that it has to be fueled up and taken out, whether there’s anything to harvest or not.
“There may be a plant there,” she said, “but there may be nothing on that plant.”
As far as corn yields go, this year wasn’t actually as bad as 2002 or 2003 on the Gerstner land.
Thanks to some rain in June, they had a harvest.
“If we could have just gotten one more rain,” Eric Gerstner said, “we would have had a great corn crop.”
Now, he’s waiting to see the fate of the soybean crop.
Faith, family, community
Eric Gerstner grew up on the farm where he and Brooke are raising their two sons — 9-year-old Aiden and 8-year-old Peyton. They carry crop insurance and have another income through Brooke’s job, but there’s still a lot at stake.
“It’s just a lot of everyday stress, worrying about when it’s going to rain, or you watch your corn crop suffer — that’s hard to watch,” Eric Gerstner said. “We probably pray a lot harder for rain during the dry times. I guess you’ve just got to hope that the good Lord will take care of you. There’s a reason for everything that happens.”
The mild winter was the Mosers’ first indication this would be a different sort of year.
They didn’t burn off old growth as they would in most springs. Alfalfa went in early and didn’t have a normal year.
They sold some cattle weeks earlier than the usual late July or early August.
Son Cameron waited as long as he could to plant corn.
Still, the cattle grazing on the Mosers’ land were in good shape. But they monitored body condition closely.
The Mosers’ three grown children are also invested in the operation, either directly or indirectly.
The younger generation, however, will have other sources of income to draw on from careers outside farming.
“Where for 30 years,” said Lisa Moser, “it’s pretty much been however the year goes is what we live on.”
While life has uncertainties — from weather extremes to hundreds of requirements the government sets forth that farmers and ranchers must find ways to fulfill — it all boils down to faith and family.
Seeing their grandkids — 4-year-old Tucker and 2-year-old Tate — every day is a big perk of this life.
While the concerns are serious, the people at the heart of it aren’t complaining, observes Father Pat Sullivan, pastor of St. Columbkille, Annunciation, and St. Monica-St. Elizabeth Parish in Blue Rapids.
He finds it humbling to live in the midst of farmers, who basically feed the world.
The people plow forward with the attitude: “It’s another day, and we’ll get through it.”
“You’ve just got to have faith, I guess,” said Gus Sandmann, an 84-year-old parishioner of St. Monica-St. Elizabeth, who farmed for decades before retiring in 1990.
Good years outnumbered bad, but he farmed through droughts — including a bad one in 1956 — as well as bitter winters and other life turns.
His hardest time wasn’t even during the years spent working in the fields. It was after his wife JoAnn got sick. She died in 2007.
Some of the couple’s happiest times came when their seven kids were little and playing in the fields — plus the years of harvesting bumper crops.
As always in farming, good crop or bad, Sandmann played the hand he was dealt.
“You lived according to your means until another crop,” he said. “And sometimes, well, you just didn’t get as many nice things. We always got along and had plenty to eat.”
It’s a life where neighbors look after neighbors — a dozen combines came rolling in to cut his wheat the summer after his heart attack in 1972, recalls Sandmann — and that sense of community remains.
Sandmann doesn’t envy the farmers out there today dealing with the heat or the prices, although one of his sons still farms full time and his daughter and her husband part time.
He still prays for rain.
“You just hope and pray that the good Lord will take care of you, which he does — sometimes in mysterious ways,” he said.
Faith on the farm
“If you don’t have faith in this business, I would imagine it would be difficult to make it,” said Lisa Moser.
Father Sullivan first learned the importance of rain when he was named administrator of three parishes in rural northern Kansas two years ago.
Nothing put it in perspective like the parish picnic of 2011, when dark clouds threatened to drench the festivities.
Parishioners instantly rejected his suggestion that they pray for the rain to hold off.
“Everybody looked at me and they were, like, ‘No, Father, no.
“‘We want everything out here to get soaked.’”
When the rains came, they happily moved the picnic inside.
Rain doesn’t ruin a weekend, Father Sullivan learned. It’s cause for celebration.
The young priest was a quick study.
Now Father Sullivan blesses fields. His congregations pray for rain during Mass. This summer he offered a Mass in Lillis specifically focusing on rain, and about 100 people attended.
Like Father Sullivan, Father Mendem often thinks now more like a farmer, especially in light of the devastating drought.
“Maybe our souls are as dry as our grounds are,” he said, and people’s souls are thirsting for God. This is an opportunity to depend on God and to be close to him. It is also a time to bring everyone together.
“We live in hope,” Father Mendem said. “We are hoping.”
If there is a silver lining to the drought, Stowell believes it might be a growth spurt in faith.
In agriculture, people generally do “too well” or “not well at all.”
“When things are too well, we maybe forget about the small things in life that are important,” he said.
If things were good all the time, people might actually lose faith, he reasons.
“If there were a plus to these kinds of situations,” he concluded, it might be that “it actually draws us together and reminds us who we really are.”