Dominic “Nic” Budde peels the covers off two plastic ice cream buckets filled with oats in the bed of his pickup truck.Fr. Michael Erwin, pastor of St. Katharine Parish in Beaver Dam, blesses oat and corn seeds for farmer Dominic “Nic” Budde during a rural life celebration on Wednesday, Feb. 26. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)

A 50-pound bag of seed corn rests against the buckets as Fr. Mike Erwin raises the silver aspergill in his hand and sprinkles holy water on the precious seeds.

Despite temperatures near zero and wind chills of minus 20, Fr. Erwin, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Beaver Dam, moves to two other trucks, carefully blessing bags of seed corn and soybean seeds with drops of holy water threatening to freeze in the frigid air.

Planting may be weeks away, but Dodge County farmers were anxious to get God’s blessing of the seeds they will eventually sow during the inaugural “Blessing of the Seeds,” a Rural Life Day prayer service at St. Katharine Drexel, situated in the heart of agricultural-oriented Dodge County, held in late February.

“You always want to work with the Lord. It’s all in his hands anyway. As farmers, we just do what we can,” said Budde, who operates a small dairy farm with his brother, Tom, just outside Beaver Dam.

The Buddes plant the seeds to provide feed for livestock on their 130-acre farm.

“We brought just a small amount of seeds. We figure it’s like holy water. You bless a small amount, mix it into other bags of seeds and it’s all blessed,” Nic Budde said.

He said the blessing isn’t just for the seeds, but for the entire farming operation.Beaver Dam farmers look on as Fr. Michael Erwin of St. Katharine Drexel Parish blesses seeds to be sown this spring. The farmers are, left to right, Dominic Budde, Joe Rechek and Herb Lehner. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)

“We hope our work is blessed. Above all, we hope for safety. We’re placing it in God’s hands for sure,” Budde said.

Herb Lehner, who grows corn and soybeans on 220 acres of land south of Beaver Dam, brought four 50-pound bags of seeds – two types of seed corn and two types of soybeans – to the event.

“I’m a strong believer in God. The more help we can get, the better off we’ll be,” Lehner said. “I’ll take these seeds Fr. Mike blessed and mix them with other bags of seeds so the blessing rubs off.”

With corn selling at half the price of a year ago, Lehner said finding ways to increase yield and pinching pennies on costs is critical, including a helping hand from God.

“At least we’ll have good seeds,” Lehner said. “Farmers face a lot of challenges. You’re always fighting the weather. The last couple of years have been tough. Two years ago we were planting corn in the middle of April. With all the cold and snow of this winter there’s likely going to be snow on the ground until the middle of April. God’s assistance certainly isn’t going to hurt.”

Following the seed blessing, which also attracted home gardeners bearing packets of flower and other seeds to Rural Life Day, attendees recited prayers oriented toward farming and planting.

“We are eternally grateful … for the good black earth and the seeds producing the plentiful harvest … God of the hearth and the harvest, your children, here kneeling, adore you,” read two passages from the “Evening Prayer of a Rural Family,” part of “The Rural Life Prayerbook of 1956.”

Gathering farmers together for prayer “felt very natural for them,” said Fr. Erwin.

“I find that sometimes we don’t minister to the most obvious people,” he said. “These farmers are going about doing their important work of feeding the world. They pray through that work of feeding the world and just need a little support from the church.”

Farming and agriculture are close to Fr. Erwin’s heart. He grew up in rural Waterford, on a small family farm.

“Both of my grandparents operated farms. I worked on farms in my teenage years,” said Fr. Erwin, who earned an undergraduate degree in dairy science from the University of Wisconsin – Madison before entering the seminary.

“I was going to be a large animal veterinarian before deciding my calling was with God,” Fr. Erwin said, noting former Milwaukee Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy Dolan focused on Catholic ministries in rural areas in his doctoral studies, and current Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki subscribes to rural Catholic life magazines “and when he is done sends them to me.”

“In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, we need a rural component that periodically needs attention. Sometimes we focus all our attention in the urban and suburban areas,” he said.

After the seed blessing, Fr. Erwin asked those in attendance about issues that the church should address in connection with farming.

That touched off a mini-debate regarding the use of genetically modified seeds and other talk of balancing technological, traditional and organic farming methods.

“The church could play a role in facilitating discussion to find the middle ground in those discussions,” Fr. Erwin said.

For Norma Bohl, who operated a dairy farm just outside Beaver Dam for 60 years with her husband, Don, before selling it to a son, happiness was simply receiving God’s blessing for the sunflower seeds clutched in her hands.

“I’ve had failures growing sunflowers the past two years. This is basically the first time we’ve had a seed blessing around here, so I thought if I got them blessed this year they would grow,” Bohl said.

Bohl also brought some packets of vegetable seeds intended for planting in her home garden.

“God looks out for us. It isn’t always just the big things he looks out for, it’s the little things, too, like growing sunflowers,” Bohl said.

Being a long-time farmer with a son who maintains a dairy herd of about 400 animals and grows alfalfa and corn to feed his cows, Bohl understands the desire by farmers to ask for God’s help.

“Our farm has been in the family for more than 150 years and God has always played a big part in its operation,” Bohl said. “Farmers face challenges. If your paycheck depended on whether we had rain or not at proper times and you knew God controlled that, you would pray. You need God. You really do.”