A Dominican sisterhood farms the past—and future—in Kansas
I drove nine miles past Heartland Farm before I realized I’d missed the place, as usual. The tiny (at least by Kansas standards) 80-acre farmstead is located, improbably, near Pawnee Rock—the exact epicenter of the heartland—in the middle of thousands upon thousands of acres of wheat, corn, soybeans, and cattle. Easy enough to miss, I suppose, in this vast sea of massive mono-cropped grids.
Retracing my path, I arrived just as the farm’s owners, five Dominican nuns in their 60s, dressed in garden clogs and T-shirts, were finishing preparations for lunch. On the front lawn of their farmhouse, a large table was set. Platters of smoked sausage and caraway-flecked sauerkraut sat beside a tomato-cheddar tart. Wooden bowls held salads of tender greens and baby spinach from the garden. There were jars of bread-and-butter pickles and pickled okra from last year’s harvest, and fresh-baked rye bread smeared with butter.
The sisters laughed as they filled their plates. Their food is unassuming but prepared with practiced hands, made almost exclusively from family recipes. “It comes down to what my grandmother made,” says Sister Jane Belanger, a smiling woman with cropped silver hair. The nuns have been here since the 1980s, when they started the farmstead as a community that would steward the land. Over lunch, I learned that several of them descended from Volga Germans, who landed in Kansas after fleeing religious persecution in the 19th century. They brought with them Turkey Red wheat, a grain ideally suited to cultivation on the Plains.
I come here whenever I want to see the past, present, and future of agriculture all at once. The past is evident in how the nuns spend their days, growing, cooking, and preserving whatever they have, and trading with neighbors for what they don’t: a grass-fed steer from up the road, hay-baling services, honey. “We see these things as a gift,” says Sister Jane.
The present is manifested in the center-pivot irrigation systems that surround the farm. And, as far as the future goes, while a sustainable farm run by a small group of nuns isn’t competing with the huge agribusinesses out here, the sisters are, as the saying goes, being the change they wish to see in the world. Seated at the table, they pray for abundance—then, after washing the dishes, they get back to work.
1049 CR 390
Pawnee Rock, Kansas