Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden was among a small group of Farmers Union leaders who were granted an audience with Pope Francis in Rome today following a weeklong series of meetings with Vatican officials and rural organizations. Discussions surrounded the important role family farmers play in food security and the fact that most of the food produced in the U.S. is produced by family farmers.

Monsignor Peter Wells, assistant secretary of state for the Vatican, expressed concerns with the worldwide loss of family farmers, food security and environmental stewardship. “I’m pleased to hear the Vatican State Department’s belief that stewardship is ecumenical worldwide,” said Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.

The delegation also spent time with Caldoritti, the largest farm organization in Italy; the International Catholic Rural Association; and the secretary general of the World Farmers Organization. These meetings are leading up to an International Symposium of Faith, Food and The Environment that will take place in Milan, Italy, June 24 to 27.

The Farmers Union delegation said that one of its biggest challenges was dispelling the widely held myth that U.S. agriculture is completely dominated by large, multinational corporations and is thus inapplicable to the farming paradigms in most of the rest of the world. “This is an incredible opportunity for South Dakota Farmers Union and our brother organizations across the United States to work with the Vatican and network with others in Europe on the future of family farming,” said SDFU President Doug Sombke. “It also affords us the opportunity to let the world know what farming in the United States is truly like. Many see American farmers as corporate controlled and nothing else,” he added.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, nearly 97 percent of farms in the U.S. are owned and operated by families, who are the best custodians of the land and water resources we all rely on.

Dave Velde, National Farmers Union (NFU) chief counsel, noted that the discussions that took place in Rome transcended all national borders and religious beliefs. “All religions are concerned about stewardship and the environment,” he said. “And this is a belief that can help unite a very divided world.”

The two principal organizations representing the U.S. were NFU and Catholic Rural Life, based in Minnesota. The findings of earlier symposiums and these meetings in Rome both will be used to develop The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader, a set of resources that Catholic Rural Life is developing with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in the Vatican.

Discussion not only included land use and conservation, but also a resource that is increasingly scarce: fresh water. “In discussions with Vatican officials on environmental issues, one of their concerns is water and the availability in the major agriculture producing regions of the world. Whether it’s drought or contamination that we’re facing, we need to make sure that the water supply remains safe and abundant,” Von Ruden said.

Alan Merrill, president of Montana Farmers Union said “after spending time revisiting the values we hold, with the emphasis on our spiritual, moral and physical responsibilities to the land and the production of food, the Farmers Union grassroots membership should be proud that these same ideas are held high around the world."