I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, a totally urban setting. The only known agricultural aspect of Brooklyn is Betty Smith’s famous novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. However, unknown to many present city dwellers, Brooklyn was all farmland at one point in its history. Having lived most of my life in Brooklyn, I was transferred as Bishop of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, which is the most rural part of New York state where there were more than one tree and many farms, especially dairy farms. I grew very much in my admiration for farmers and their way of life, a difficult one which serves all of us. Farmers literally give us our daily bread. When I was transferred to southern Florida, I believed that I would be leaving a ministry to farmers since I was moving back to a more urban setting. How happy I was to learn that this is far from the case! Farming is one of Florida’s largest industries, and our own Diocese of Palm Beach is rich with various farms and those who labor in their fields.
As Thanksgiving approaches, it is a most appropriate time to express gratitude to our farmers. Farmworkers are the ones who labor to bring about the harvest that we celebrate during Thanksgiving. This is an opportunity for all of us to recognize the human dignity of our brothers and sisters who provide us with the earth’s sustenance and to consider our moral obligation to work for justice in their labor and living conditions. Unfortunately, the work of farmers is not one that is given high attention in our society and is often unappreciated.
Those who work the land in southern Florida provide us with much nourishment we may take for granted. Lettuce, rice, corn, oranges, grapefruits, celery and tomatoes are but some of the produce our farmworkers provide for us. I was quite surprised to learn that Florida is one of the largest places in our nation for the cattle industry. I was also surprised to learn that Florida ranks very high nationally in milk production. With such a richness of produce, we have much for which to be grateful due to our farmworkers. In addition to providing us with such a richness of food, our farmworkers also provide the foundation for a large portion of the income of southern Florida.
There is truly an inherent theology of farming that is basic to all human life. When we read about creation in the Book of Genesis, it is God Himself who works with the land so that it can sustain the pinnacle of his creation, human life. When God creates human life, it is in His image and likeness that He does. He then entrusts the earth and all that it produces to men and women to cultivate. God hands His work over to them, and He does so, not as individuals, but as a family. God’s work is such that He rests after His creation.
Our Lord Himself was well aware of the dignity of working with the land as well as with the sacrifices that go with it. That is evident in the many parables He tells about farmers who often face significant difficulties. These parables include the sower who goes out to plant his seed and loses most of it, the landowner who leases out his land and is taken advantage of, and the parable in which a man plants his field only to have an enemy disrupt his work. In all of these parables, the one who works with the land always overcomes the obstacles and brings about a greater harvest.
Farmworkers do much more than provide us with sustenance by their working with the fruits of God’s creation. They remind all of us, by their hard work, of the meaning of life which is found in the dignity of work. Work is not a burden but the means by which we cooperate in God’s plan of creation and even redemption. Labor is the means by which we fulfill our existence and make a real contribution to the lives of others. True work is beneficially tiring, and farmworkers epitomize that fact. Work is also joyful, and the labor of our farmworkers in southern Florida is an outstanding example of that reality.
At the coming celebration of Thanksgiving, we thank our farmers for all that they do and for providing the food for our Thanksgiving tables. We need to be more aware of the difficulties that they face and the sacrifices they make for us, and we need to ensure they have more than dignified working conditions. We salute and thank our farmworkers here in southern Florida. May this time of harvest be one of blessing for them. We are blessed to live in a place where much more than a tree grows. We are blessed to have men and women who labor with that growth.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
November 10, 2023