Return to the land deepens couple's Catholic faith, builds community

ST. LEO, Kan.
By Tyler Orsburn

Mary Ford had no idea what she had gotten herself into. But after seeing a newborn goat struggle to stay alive near its mother, she knew she couldn't philosophize about life or city versus country ZIP codes any longer.

Kevin and Mary Ford pose for a photo with their children outside their Kansas home.
Kevin and Mary Ford pose for a photo with their children outside their Kansas home. "I want to be a witness to what marriage can be, what family can be and what life on the land can be," Kevin said about his determination to make rural life sustainable."It's a beautiful reality. It's hard but it's beautiful.” (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Having just returned home from a daylong trip into town with her family, the former Wichita Magdalen Catholic School teacher offered to stay outside and do the nighttime chores for her husband on their acre-and-a-half farm with its cats, chickens and newly acquired goats. Her husband, Kevin, would take their two young girls inside and put them to bed.

"Goats are supposed to nurse within the first 30 minutes of their life or they may not make it," Mary explained about how she walked out into that endless uncovered night at their "hobby farm" to find that the fragile animal could still not stand. Fearful of how long the kid had gone without nursing, she ran inside and grabbed Kevin. He put the baby goat in a warm stall and helped it nurse.

As the couple walked back to their farmhouse and out of the cold, "I could see the concern in Kevin's face," she recalled in an interview with Catholic News Service. And for the rest of the night she got in and out of bed to go help the farm animal nurse and stay alive.

"That was kind of the turning point for me," Mary said about her transformation from schoolteacher to dirt-under-the-fingernail farm wife. "This was not just work -- this was participating in something beautiful, something God had intended for us to do. It just felt right from that point on. I stopped fighting it."

Southern Kansas isn't for everyone. It's flat. It's windy. And it's quite lonesome. There may be more wind turbines than people. Driving to the dirt-road town of St. Leo where Mary and Kevin's community-supported Fiat Farms sits is a piece of cake. Just hold the steering wheel straight and try not to fall asleep.

What brought the young couple back to the area of historic dust bowls was Kevin's great desire to be on the land. He said in the end it was a memory of digging potatoes with his grandfather that stirred him to create a new Catholic land movement -- a crusade where families return to the land to build community, strengthen faith, and grow and sell chemical-free food.

Mary Ford walks toward her husband, Kevin, as he inspects the soil quality of a garden bed in their front yard.
Mary Ford walks toward her husband, Kevin, as he inspects the soil quality of a garden bed in their front yard. "I put up a mental block when Kevin started mentioning he wanted to go out and farm," Mary said, describing her husband's initial desire to farm and homestead. "So we went and had some prayer time. Ultimately it takes God's will because if it hadn't, we never would have moved this route. It's a crazy route to go." (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

But it wasn't until the former track-and-field star sat in his planning period for classes at Kapaun Mount Carmel High School in Wichita that the Benedictine College graduate felt the need to write about the movement.

Before he knew it, the recently hired theology teacher had more than 300 blog posts on farming, rural life, family and Catholic social teachings. Something in his heart and mind told him he wouldn't be a schoolteacher long.

"To change the world I need to make sure my children are going to maintain the faith," Kevin said, as he described his decision to leave his teaching job. "If I fail with my own children it doesn't matter how many students I teach about the faith -- I didn't succeed. I did not fulfill the thing that I'm going to be judged upon, which is: Did you pass on that faith? Did you run that race or did you run it in vain?"

Now into the sixth year of their farm journey, Kevin and Mary have expanded their fiat with additional animals, greenhouses, acreage and a little boy in the womb. Because of all the new farming demands, Kevin has little time to write. But the slender 6-foot-something farmer said he's humbled that God has used the things he has written to affect so many lives.

His first blog follower was Sacred Heart parishioner Craig Steger of Cashton, Wis. Steger wrote in an email to CNS that he met Kevin on a different Catholic homesteading forum, and found that many of the things Kevin discussed translated into what was going on in his own mind and heart about a farming vocation.

Now the 35-year-old lawyer lives with his wife and five children in a small log cabin, without running water. For food they butcher steer, raise chickens, and grow fruits and vegetables.

"One of the things I discovered in my own discernment of this calling to life with the land is that the calling is not unique to me, but is happening in many other people, particularly people in my generation," Steger wrote from his iPhone.

"Kevin has become, whether by accident or design, a type of leader for those of us finding ourselves on this vocational journey," he continued. "He's someone doing what many of us long to do, but for various reasons can't or won't do. Kevin has shown us that this movement, this communal calling is real, and most important, is viable."

And it was this communal viability that lured Casey and Amanda Truelove some 600 miles north from Austin, Texas. Tired of the city life they both knew they wanted a more simple life. Now, after living about four months in St. Leo, they were about to purchase an abandoned home near their field of dreams and become true homesteaders.

"(Kevin and Mary) enabled us to start without any knowledge (of farming)," Amanda said, recounting their move and explaining the co-ownership alliance of Fiat Farms. "In our opinion it was the Lord directing us. He said, 'Here, this is what you're dreaming of. I'm going to have someone teach you how to do it so there's a lot less risk involved. And they're also wonderful people that you're going to become very good friends with.' It was an offer we really couldn't put down."

"We don't invite people to come here," Mary said. People's interest has grown from what they've see about their life and farm on the Internet.

"It's more of a passive thing of -- this is what we're doing; we love this life; if you like it come and see; but we're not going to make you come and move here," she said. "(Our farm is) open for anyone to come and see so that they can go out and do it in other places, too."

Catholic News Service - November 06, 2013