NEWCASTLE -- All through the spring, summer and fall, farmers keep at least one eye on the sky.
They look for breaks in cloudy spring skies that will allow the sun to warm and dry the soil for planting. They watch summer storms roll in, hoping that gathering clouds bring needed rain and not damaging winds or hail.
For the past five years, the Rev. Andy Sohm has helped northeast Nebraska farmers look beyond the clouds for help with a bountiful crop.
The pastor at St. Peter Catholic Church in Newcastle, St. Joseph in Ponca and St. Patrick in Jackson, Sohm has taken God's blessings to his parishioners' fields, reviving a Catholic ritual of blessing fields and seeds at planting time. He'll also return at harvest, if asked, to bless the crops.
A farm kid from Danbury, Iowa, Sohm knew from experience that divine intervention, in addition to favorable weather conditions, plays an important role from planting through harvest.
"Having grown up on a farm, I realized and recognized all you need, the stress and pressure, and the need for the Lord," Sohm said. "I think it's extremely important to put our trust in the Lord."
When he was assigned to the parishes in Ponca and Newcastle five years ago (Jackson was added a year ago), Sohm decided that reintroducing the crop-blessing ritual was not only a way to help farmers realize their faith, but also to meet and connect with parishioners.
"It's a good way to connect with families rather than let them come my way," said Sohm, who was ordained in 2005. "I was fascinated, too, because farming has changed so much since I was on the farm."
Sohm's ministry led him over the muddy roads near Newcastle recently to the farms of Chad Kneifl and his parents, Sy and Ellen Kneifl, who together plant 2,200 acres in corn and soybeans.
Inside the machine shop at Chad Kneifl's farm sat bags of seed corn and the planter, waiting for the fields to dry out so planting could begin. As Sohm pulled out his prayer book and set a container of holy water on the floor, Chad and Sy Kneifl took off their hats and, along with Ellen, folded their hands.
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After an opening prayer and scripture reading, Sohm prayed an "Our Father" with the Kneifls and concluded with a prayer that began with the words, "Lord of the harvest, you place the gift of creation in our hands and called us to till the earth and make it fruitful. We ask your blessing as we prepare these seeds and the earth. May the care we show these seeds remind us of your tender care for your people."
Sohm sprinkled holy water on the bags of seed and the planter, then went to Sy and Ellen Kneifl's farm to repeat the blessing on the soybean seed.
It's a ritual the Kneifls believe in, one that Sy remembers from years ago, when farmers would take a sample of their seed to town each spring for the priest to bless. Yes, they've had dry years, hail and other challenges, but Sy believes the blessing is as important as rain and fertilizer.
"Last year we had an excellent crop. That doesn't happen every year," he said.
It's probably safe to say that farmers offer prayers throughout the growing season until the crops are in the bin. The blessing is another way to seek God's help for a good harvest and protection from flooding, drought and hail, Ellen Kneifl said.
"It's very important to us," she said. "We've always had a lot of faith. We have to. There are so many things that can happen."
Sohm said he'd like to see the blessing, once common, become more widespread again. It's a good reminder not only to him, but to the people he serves, that there's a higher power looking over them and their fields.
"Together we're putting our trust not in man, but in God," he said.
Sharing that blessing, that trust, Sohm said, is a glorious experience.
"It's helped me grow closer to God, and it's a real blessing for me to bless this seed. I feel the blessing of the Lord to be able to do this," he said. "It's really the blessings of the people. I do it for the people."