Posted July 26, 2010:
Building a Farm

by Ronnie MacDonell.

When Madonna House started farming, all the men except me were city guys without any experience. As kids, my brothers and I had to run our farm when my father got sick. So I knew what we did there in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and I tried to do the same thing here. But I soon found out that the farming conditions in Combermere were different.

Friends of Madonna House who owned property nearby allowed us to farm their place, and that was our first farm. It included acreage for hay, and two and a half acres, full of rocks, for growing vegetables.

We spent one whole summer getting this land ready. The rocks were too big to move, so we had to blow them into pieces with dynamite. We would make holes in the rocks. One man would hold a chisel while the other would try to hit it with a big maul hammer to make a crack in the rock. Then we would put dynamite in the crack and blow it up.

To work the soil, we had only hoes and a little motorized plow, the kind with handles that you walk behind.

I thought it was ridiculous trying to plow this big field with this little device, and I remembered that we had a small tractor on my family’s farm that wasn’t being used. So I asked them for it, and it came on the train, together with a wagon.

The next year, in the spring, we planted vegetables. We began searching for a farm to buy and found one, the Kelly farm, about six miles from our main house.

It was very poor farmland. It was depleted from erosion and over-cropping on the steep hillsides, it lacked organic content and minerals, and it lost moisture rapidly because its base was sand.

One field had rock outcroppings from subsoil boulders, which were impossible to get rid of.

We arrived at this farm, which we called St. Benedict’s Acres, very late in the spring, past the ideal time to begin fieldwork. We began plowing the very first day, and soon we realized that we were running out of time.

So we started working all night on shifts with the tractor. How we longed for the dawn to come! We didn’t get much of a break from work during the day either.

Our foundress Catherine would periodically call us to a meeting, usually in conjunction with the kitchen staff. She gave us all a chance to air our opinions, so it felt like a family, with everyone sharing in the development.

Those were exciting times. We realized that it would take forty years to rebuild the soil, but we had a sense that we were building something for the future.

During my many years at St. Benedict’s farm, I was sustained by Catherine’s vision of restoring farming to what God meant it to be, to methods that respect and nourish the land. I knew that this was a vital part of restoring the world to Christ. Also I was working to feed the family.

I had always desired to serve in developing countries, and after 33 years at St. Ben’s, I was assigned first to Madonna House Liberia, West Africa and then to our house in neighboring Ghana. The simplicity of the lifestyle, which included lifting water from a deep well with a rope and bucket, reminded me of the pioneer days of our farm in Canada.

There was a shortage of food in Liberia, because people depended on imported rice to supplement their own crops, and sometimes no rice was available.

Almost immediately upon arrival, I borrowed a hoe and started to work the soil for a garden. People marveled to see a white man hoeing in the fields.

I realized that the people would not have the money to invest in any fertilizing program other than natural sustainable agriculture. So we decided to adhere to organic methods in developing our own farm. I learned about a method called "alley crop farming" from a center in Nigeria, and that is the method we used.

We also begged vegetable and fruit seeds from international groups which were working to provide food for all the hungry of the world.

Since the soil was very poor, I got together with some of the young fellows, and we planted soil-enrichment crops, including velvet beans.

Later on, during the civil war, when the supply of food from Dr. Simone’s Food for Children program ran out, it was a great consolation to me that we could go to our gardens and pick food to give to the hungry people who came to us.

My many years at St. Ben’s Farm had been a wonderful preparation for the missions in West Africa.

Adapted from Apostolic Farming, pp. 71-75, (2001) available from MH Publications and reprinted from Restoration, October 2007.


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