Iowa ecumenical project assists agricultural programs around globe

MANCHESTER, Iowa -- On a recent sunny morning outside Manchester, farmer Greg Klein drove his combine over a 23-acre plot, harvesting rows of corn.

After a few passes, he parked the huge machine next to a couple of empty haulers and dumped a cascade of yellow kernels. The containers were filled and the yield taken to a huge elevator nearby to be sold. Klein repeated the process with the help of others until the entire field was bare.

Bringing in the corn is a common scene in rural communities all over the Dubuque Archdiocese this time of year, but the field Klein harvested in late October was special.

Owned by St. Mary's Parish Cemetery Association, all of the proceeds from that particular plot, an estimated $13,000, was donated to Seeds of Hope, an ecumenical charity involving Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist congregations in three local communities.

A delegation of St. Mary's parishioners watched Klein work, with Father Richard Gaul, the parish's sacramental priest, jumping into the combine's passenger seat to ride along with the farmer for a bit. Klein had a simple answer as to why he donated hours of his time to plant and later harvest the field.

"It's good stewardship," he said.

Last year, Seeds of Hope, which relies on farmers, land owners, and church members to donate their resources, gave a combined total of more than $56,000 to an agricultural program called the Bateyes Project in the Dominican Republic, one of many sustainable agricultural projects in developing countries supported by the international charity called Foods Resource Bank.

Organizers expect to donate as much or more to the same cause after this year's harvest, according to Chuck and Bev Ager, president and secretary, respectively, of Seeds of Hope and members of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Strawberry Point. Their congregation is one of the ecumenical partners.

The Bateyes Project helps former sugar cane workers who lost their jobs to learn how to grow food.

"They were brought in from Haiti," Chuck Ager told The Witness, newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque. "Haiti doesn't allow them to return and the Dominican Republic won't allow them to become citizens. They're without a country."

Seeds of Hope has been giving to projects like this around the world with the Foods Resource Bank's help since it started in Strawberry Point in 2004. The charity has given a total of about $298,000 to agricultural efforts around the world so far.

The concept is straightforward: Acreage is set aside for Seeds of Hope to grow crops, mostly corn or soybeans. These yields are sold and the money goes to projects selected through the international organization.

"We have a loose confederation (of churches) in three different cities that belong to Seeds of Hope," explained Tom Hanson, a member of St. Mary's Parish who helps lead the contingent from Manchester.

"Foods Resource Bank is an organization that matches Christian organizations to programs designed by relief organizations. All of the money is used for developing things," he said. "There's no food handouts. We're into sustaining agricultural programs so people feed themselves."

Seeds of Hope began with about 14 acres, a Lutheran-owned site the Agers and some fellow church members realized could be used for cultivation. They reached out to the other congregations in Strawberry Point to get involved -- another Lutheran church, St. Mary's Parish there and the United Methodist Church.

Eventually more land was donated by others for raising crops for the project. Today about 80 acres are used, made up of various parcels in Strawberry Point, Manchester and Ryan.

The farmers who volunteer to plant and harvest change, but there is a core group of about 10 to 15 organizers from the church congregations who meet periodically.

"It's been so refreshing to meet such good Christians from so many other denominations," said Hanson.

Seeds of Hope also regularly receives donations of seeds, fertilizer and other items from local businesses. Congregations also hold other types of fundraisers throughout the year.

Projects that receive donations also change every couple of years. Aside from the Dominican Republic, Seeds of Hope money has gone to efforts in North Korea, Tanzania, Guatemala and Kenya, among others.

There are groups similar to Seeds of Hope in other parts of Iowa, and organizers have done presentations to help other groups get started. They hope to spread the concept.

"There are seven billion people in the world and one billion of them go to bed hungry," said Hanson. "This is us trying to do something to live out what the Gospel says."

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