‘Prayer And Work’ Go Hand In Hand At This Colorado Ranch

January 22, 2015
Sisters Ann (pictured left) and Elizabeth tend to Yoda, a young water buffalo calf during his morning feeding at the Abbey of St. Walburga.Sisters Ann (pictured left) and Elizabeth tend to Yoda, a young water buffalo calf during his morning feeding at the Abbey of St. Walburga. Sonja Salzburg / For KUNC and Harvest Public Media
Sisters Ann (pictured left) and Elizabeth tend to Yoda, a young water buffalo calf during his morning feeding at the Abbey of St. Walburga.

Originally published on December 10, 2014 2:48 pm

Many beer aficionados are familiar with the rare breweries run by Trappist monks. The beer is highly sought after, but it’s not the only food or drink made by a religious order. Many abbeys and convents have deep roots in agriculture, combining farm work with prayer.

Just five miles south of the Colorado-Wyoming border you’ll find one of these places. Idyllic red farm buildings sit in the shadow of the main abbey, all tucked in a stony valley. At the Abbey of St. Walburga, cattle, water buffalo and llamas graze on grass under the watchful eye of Benedictine nuns.

Sister Maria-Walburga Schortemeyer, or just Sister Walburga for short, runs the abbey’s ranch. Other sisters volunteer their time to work. The list of agricultural activities is long. In addition to the cows and llamas, they raise chickens and bees. The honey and eggs are used in the abbey’s kitchen. The water buffalo are the newest addition, brought on in April 2014, and milked to make mozzarella cheese. Though, because of health code the cheese operation is currently on pause.

The biggest moneymaker on the farm comes from the beef cattle. The sisters are very aware of their marketing edge, Sr. Walburga says.

“We have kind of a corner in the market, you know, nuns selling natural beef. People just kinda believe in it,” she says.

Credit Sonja Salzburg / For KUNC and Harvest Public Media
The nuns at the Abbey of St. Walburga sell their beef cattle to customers by the quarter, half and full shares of the animal, though there's nearly always a waiting list for the meat.

They’ve been in the grass-fed beef business now for about 7 years. Because their operation is so unique, they’ve never had a problem selling out of product.

“Some of our customers want it because of the beef,” Sr. Walburga says. “Some of them want it because they know how they’re being are cared for. We didn’t have much trouble and now we always have a waiting list for the beef.”

To keep the baby cows safe from the region’s numerous predators the nuns employ a set of unorthodox security guards - the aforementioned llamas.

Credit Sonja Salzburg / For KUNC and Harvest Public Media
The sisters refer to the temperamental llamas as "The Thugs," raised both for their fiber and their ability to chase off predators.

“We have seen them chase a mountain lion off the property,” Sr. Walburga says. “Llamas have various weaponry, one of them is their breath. They also, they kill with their front feet. They try to disembowel you. If they were upset with you”

That’s right, a disemboweling guard llama raised by nuns. Though the sisters say the llamas usually save their spit and hooves for intruders, not the nuns who feed them.

Credit Sonja Salzburg / For KUNC and Harvest Public Media
Sister Gertrude, the abbey's resident cheese maker, holds one of the farm's cats, Shakespeare.

When many religious orders were founded centuries ago during the Middle Ages, agriculture was more than a way of life, it was a way of survival. Monasteries were self-sustaining, growing the food they ate. While farming has become less common as we’ve urbanized as a society, Sr. Walburga says the abbey’s farm is more than just a quaint business. Other sisters have questioned the ranch’s value, but Sr. Walburga says it keeps the abbey connected to the outside world.

“When our neighbors are suffering from drought or suffering from flooding, we can totally relate to them. We’re not above and beyond. The nuns are never touched by weather issues. It’s good to be at the mercy of the environment and so that other people know we don’t live some ethereal life,” she says.

Credit Sonja Salzburg / For KUNC and Harvest Public Media
The sisters have called their plot of land in Virginia Dale, Colorado home since the late 1990s. Before that they subsisted on land in Boulder county.

Benedictine monasteries, with orders like the Trappists and Cistercians, use the motto "Ora et Labora," meaning prayer and work. That motto doesn’t represent separate ideas to the sisters. All day prayer and work are intertwined.

“Praying with the scriptures is like chewing your cud,” Sr. Walburga says. “So all through the day we’re ruminating on it. We chew, chew, chew, swallow, regurgitate. So it’s not just ‘the Lord is my shepherd,’ it’s ‘the Lord is my cowboy.’”

Credit Sonja Salzburg / For KUNC and Harvest Public Media
Sisters (from left) Ann, Gertrude, Elizabeth and Walburga work on the abbey's ranch, where they raise beef cattle, water buffalo and llamas.

In their simple farm clothes of plaid shirts, jeans and Carhartts, it can be easy to forget the women are nuns - save for the fact they still wear the familiar fitted white coif.

Back at the main abbey, Sr. Walburga dons the traditional black and white habit. No more Carhartt jacket. With farm work done for the morning, it’s time for prayer. Though it won’t be long before they’re headed back out to the ranch to round up some rogue llamas.

Click here to see more photos from the abbey.

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