Catholic News Service photo
Farmers look over a combine, tractor and other farm implements auctioned off at the New Melleray Abbey farm sale near Dubuque, Iowa, Nov. 20. Farmers from miles around gathered at the abbey farm for an historic auction that marked the end of farming as a means of support for the Trappist community.
Catholic News Service photo
Farmers look over a combine, tractor and other farm implements auctioned off at the New Melleray Abbey farm sale near Dubuque, Iowa, Nov. 20. Farmers from miles around gathered at the abbey farm for an historic auction that marked the end of farming as a means of support for the Trappist community.
PEOSTA, Iowa — Farmers from miles around gathered at the New Melleray Abbey farm south of Dubuque Nov. 20 for a historic auction that marked the end of farming as a means of support for the Trappist community.

On the cold sunny morning, potential buyers climbed in the cab of the tractors and examined the well-maintained equipment that worked the 2,000 acres of cropland owned by the monastery.

Abbot Brendan Freeman, who spoke to the crowd before the auction, said it was a "bittersweet day for us, as all through our history we have been farmers," summarizing the 160-year tradition that was coming to an end.

Factors in the decision included the costs involved in farming, low prices paid for crops and the fact the abbey has fewer members and those who do live there are getting older.

The first monks came to Dubuque from Ireland at the invitation of Bishop Mathias Loras and established New Melleray Abbey in 1849. They supported themselves through the sale of farm animals and crops raised on their acreage, which includes 600 acres of prairie given to them by Bishop Loras and 600 acres they bought for $1.25 an acre.

Abbot Freeman told how the early monks sold hogs to William "Hog" Ryan" in nearby Galena, Ill., who sold pork to the Union Army during the Civil War, and of the most recent efforts in organic farming and raising organic Angus beef.

But eventually the economy took its toll. "Prices went way down," the abbot continued, "and we don't have the monks to do the fieldwork anymore." At one time in years past, there were 150 monks so there was no shortage of able-bodied workers.

In his younger days, Abbott Freeman said he also worked on the farm, but now the average age of the 35 monks who live in the monastery is 70.

After his introduction, the auction began, and piece-by-piece, equipment and supplies passed on to new owners. Although the monks are no longer farming, the memory of their work and their continuing prayer was also passed along to the new owners.

The farmland is rented out now, but the abbot said he would still go out and bless the land and the farmers working there in the spring. Although they can't ask the renters to go organic, they have put restrictions on the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizer.

"My biggest disappointment is getting out of organic farming," Abbot Freeman said the day after the sale in an interview with The Witness, newspaper of the Dubuque Archdiocese.

"I was very proud of the community's decision to try to be good stewards of our land and not to put money first, but put sound ecology before all," he said. "Even if we broke even on the farm, I think this approach would have been worth it, but you can't lose money very long and continue to pay the bills."

Although the community had been discussing getting out of farming for more than a year, the sale was the final chapter in the operation. "It just took us a long time to accept the inevitable," said Abbot Freeman.

The monastery also has 1,200 acres of timber, and this renewable resource will help to support the community as their nationally-known casket production business continues to grow. The monks will maintain a few acres to grow produce for themselves.