James Ennis and Catholic Rural Life

“The land is God’s gift to provide food to everyone.”

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In today’s food world, chefs, home cooks, and farmers are prime movers in the “farm-to-table” mission. That means restaurant chefs and home cooks in urban and rural kitchens seek the freshest ingredients possible — straight from the farm, if possible.

One of the Catholic leaders in this movement is James Ennis, the executive director of Catholic Rural Life (CRL), based in St. Paul, Minnesota, with its primary purpose as a Catholic organization to support farmers and ranchers who produce our food as God intends.

A native Californian raised in an Irish Catholic family, Ennis’s pathway to his present calling was circuitous. During his teen years, he fell away from his Catholic faith but rediscovered God while in college. For the next several decades, he attended Protestant churches, but he returned to his Catholic faith in 2002. 

As a businessman, Ennis has always worked in the food world, starting in marketing with Pillsbury under the Green Giant brand, then moving on to the Clorox Company, the owner of several food brands including Hidden Valley Ranch food products. “I worked with restaurants and other food service operations” he said. Ennis eventually went to work with Cooperative Development Services, a nonprofit organization, where he worked with farmers and farmer cooperatives around the country.

But after returning to his Catholic faith, Ennis desired to integrate his Catholic faith and his work with farmers and all who live in rural communities. In 2008, Ennis was hired by Catholic Rural Life (formerly National Catholic Rural Life Conference, founded in 1923). “I became the executive director,” he said, “and joined an organization that has been applying the Church’s teachings to rural life for over 95 years.” Catholic Rural Life receives support from over 80 dioceses throughout the country and works with those dioceses to promote the dignity of the people in rural communities and to connect Catholic rural farmers to their faith.

Under Ennis’ leadership, the organization’s threefold mission includes advocating for a more sustainable food supply; strengthening the spiritual well-being of America’s rural communities, and inspiring a sense of wonder about the natural world for today and for the future. To that end, CRL has developed the program, Vocation of the Agricultural Leader, emphasizing the sense of importance for farmers and food production. “Some people ask me what, if anything, the Church has to say about food and agriculture,” he said. “But the Church actually has much to say about food and agriculture. So much so that, on his first visit to the U.S., Pope John Paul II, made a special stop in Iowa to speak on the important role that farmers have in providing food to us all. It is a vocation.”

Ennis has presented that message to more than 2,000 farmers in 14 states over the past five years, noting that many have been touched and heartened to learn that the Catholic Church is finally speaking on this. “I also speak to urban audiences about why eating is a moral act,” he said, “and how it is important to know where and how food is grown.” He continues, “there is a big disconnect between food and agriculture in our society. Most people think food comes from our grocery stores.”

This disconnect is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Pope Francis writes and speaks about human’s broken relationships: with God, with one another and with creation. Even some farmers have lost that connection. “There is a challenge of how to help farmers see their work as a vocation,” he said. “Farming has become so competitive. It is not just a manufacturing process,” he said, “because the land is God’s gift to provide food to everyone. How can we ensure that farmers work and live with dignity?”

Does Ennis himself do a little farming? “I enjoy gardening,” he said. “I garden because it helps me stay connected to the earth… My wife and I have great appreciation for nature and for farmers… Preparing our own food is a deep experience when using raw ingredients and working with nature.”

For more information about Catholic Rural Life, visit the website: https://catholicrurallife.org/crl-staff-2/.