Feeding the Faith Religious Orders Are Growing Vegetables, Raising Cows and Making Cheese in the Name of the Spirit

On a clear, sunny morning in July, Mother Augusta Collins stands in front of a cattle barn and calls to a herd of Belted Galloway cattle. Within moments, simultaneous, foghorn-like moos respond from a nearby field. The impressive, black-and-white heritage breed saunter over en masse and Collins rewards them by opening up a new pasture to graze.

“Come here, sweetie,” says Collins, as the bull, Siddhartha, enters the patch, allowing her to stroke his side before joining the rest of the herd.

In her baseball cap and cropped denim habit, Collins explains that all animals in the herd are grass-fed. They graze the buffer strip—or a piece of land used to prevent run-off from manure, fertilizers and other substances from entering waterways.

“It takes a little longer to grow them because they’re not getting that boost of carbohydrate as you would from grain,” says Collins. “But people love the meat, so it’s a good thing.”

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An entrance sign to the Adamah Fellowship garden. © Steph Wenderski

Much of the meat is used to feed the community of nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a 400-acre Benedictine abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Loyal customers also buy 500-pound sides of beef and leather projects created from the cattle hides after slaughter, including rugs, handbags and belts. Additionally, Collins’ stewardship includes wetlands protection, hay and compost propagation, rotational grazing and fruit orchard production.

In most respects, the Abbey is a self-sufficient community. In addition to their spiritual commitments, many of the more than 40 members participate in growing vegetables and fruit, producing milk and honey, making candles and blacksmithing.

For the nuns, upholding the health of the land is a cornerstone of the Benedictine mission of stewardship. They don’t take the commitment lightly. Three members of the community have doctoral degrees from the University of Connecticut: Collins, in plant science/agronomy; Mother Telchilde Hinckley, in animal science/reproductive physiology and Mother Noella Marcellino, in molecular and cell biology/microbiology. Further, the Abbey’s dairy is state licensed and has been given the “Dairy of Distinction” label by the state of Connecticut, allowing them to sell fresh milk, raw cheese and dairy products to the local community.

“I think that in a situation such as ours where you’re working on the land and you’re working with Creation, it’s our obligation to bring the greatest degree of professional expertise to what we’re doing,” says Hinckley. “That’s one of the gifts of the Abbey, because the Abbey does not say, “Separate yourself from Creation,” it says, “You’re going to get to God through Creation.””

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Adamah fellows at work on the 10-acre farm. © Steph Wederski

The seemingly intrinsic relationship among faith, farming and community is also the crux of the Adamah Fellowship program at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. “Adamah is about connecting people to their roots and understanding their identity to land, to the environment, to Judaism and to community,” says Shamu Sadeh, director of the leadership program for Jewish young adults that integrates sustainable farming, living and business models, spiritual studies and community building.

Adamah fellows work on a 10-acre farm of mixed vegetables, fruit orchards and a goat dairy. They also help to prepare certified kosher, organic lacto-fermented canned goods and dairy products—produced in their commercial kitchen—for sale at the Center, farmers’ markets and through Community Supported Agriculture member shares.

Zaid Kurdieh, a Muslim, farmer and owner of Norwich Meadows Farm in Norwich, New York, says customers appreciate the attention paid to religious law and to preserving the environment. Kurdieh started the Eco-Halal Meat Project to provide ethically raised meat for fellow Muslims in accordance with Islamic law. Currently, Kurdieh can process chickens and turkeys at his farm—in accordance with New York State law—but plans to expand to other meats, including goat and lamb, when local slaughtering houses become more accessible.

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Mother Augusta Collins with Siddhartha the bull. © Abbey of Regina Laudis

“I guess it’s difficult to divorce our belief system from what we do,” says Kurdieh. “Overall, organic production will fit our faith value better than, say, a non-organic system of production because a non-organic system of production is not necessarily a system that will preserve the land for the generations that come after us.”

At the Green Gulch Farm at the San Francisco Zen Center in Muir Beach, California, Senior Farm Advisor Sara Tashker suggests that it’s not surprising that Buddhism, much like other religions, “dovetails so nicely” with organic farming concepts of interdependence.

“I think that when you get down to it, no matter what religion you’re using, what vocabulary you’re using, if it’s truly a spiritual practice, it’s the same practice, the same basis with a different form,” says Tashker. “The same is true of farming—if you’re farming on a truly spiritual level, it doesn’t matter what religion you’re practicing.”