Religion still permeates Upper Midwest agriculture

Area farming practices and the sale/rental of farmland continue to be influenced by religious views and church membership. Agweek columnist Jonathan Knutson offers some thoughts on the topic

Religion is still a factor in Upper Midwest agriculture, including some business dealings and people's perceptions of farm practices. Courtesy / Pixabay
We are part of The Trust Project.

I once thought seriously about writing an Agweek cover story on how religious beliefs affect Upper Midwest agriculture. The news article would have consisted of varying insights and observations from a number of people with a stake in the issue. But, frankly, I chickened out on writing it. I didn't want to deal with inevitable complaints from a handful of zealots who were angry that the article contained viewpoints contrary to their own.

I'm tackling the topic here in column form, though. What's changed? Well, I'm 99% retired now. And after nearly three years of dealing with colon cancer, a lot of stuff that once bothered me no longer does. Please note that this is a column giving my personal views, not a balanced news article giving multiple views.

Let's start with what's obvious to people who know this part of this world: religion here is dominated by Protestants and Catholics. The Pew Research Center found that in North Dakota (statistics for surrounding states are virtually identical) 77% of residents are Christians, with Catholics and Protestants accounting for nearly all of them. Non-Christian faiths account for 3%, and the remaining 20% is classified as unaffiliated, which can mean agnostic, atheist or "nothing in particular."

Theological disputes once led to widespread tension between area Catholic and Protestant agriculturalists. One example: I'm told that some landowners have refused to sell or rent farmland to people who belong to the "other" church group. That Protestant/Catholic wall isn't as thick or tall as it used to be, but it's still there, at least in places. Who's responsible for that? There's plenty of blame to go around, or so it seems to me. (Full disclosure: I come from a strongly Lutheran background.)

Many area landowners still prefer to sell or rent farmland to members of their own church group, particularly their own congregation. Some of those landowners will even take less than the market value when they sell/rent to a fellow congregant. That's changing, though. For better or worse (or both), strictly economic considerations are increasingly common.


Some unsolicited advice for landowners planning to sell or rent out property: Get impartial, knowledgeable advice on the property's value — the Extension service is a good place to start — before agreeing to any offer, even one from a member of your own congregation. Trust can be a good thing; it's an even better thing when accompanied by prudence.

Good stewardship

That never-written cover package mentioned earlier would have focused on how religious beliefs influence so-called "good stewardship" in ag practices, particularly GMOs and confinement livestock. I personally am totally fine with both, though I understand and respect that some people are not. Modern Upper Midwest ag is a big tent, or ought to be, and there's room for honest disagreement on what constitutes good stewardship. For me, just about any practice that includes respect for land and livestock and honest dealings with neighbors and other agriculturalists might qualify.

For what it's worth: I've heard anecdotal reports of urban-raised "faith leaders" (the politically correct, new-fangled replacement term for clergy) who are assigned to rural areas, where they preach against GMOs and confinement livestock. Not surprisingly, that doesn't go over well with their congregants who use those practices

I have zero desire to tell anyone what to believe or how to farm. But I do respectfully suggest that farmers and ranchers occasionally evaluate their religious beliefs and ag practices to determine whether the two are compatible.

I also respectfully pass along (in ag-centric form) this 2,000-year-old guidance: Whatever your farming practices, fight the good fight, finish your course, keep the faith.

Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at

What to read next
Mychal Wilmes remembers how his mother's baking was a balm even when things went wrong.
Ann Bailey explains why she's thankful for agriculture in professional and personal life.
No two "farm wives" are the same, Jonathan Knutson writes. But their contributions to an operation's success can be many.
Katie Pinke looks at the positive impact of 4-H on youth.