Monks search for new ways to support Mepkin

CHARLESTON — The monks at Mepkin Abbey have started the search for a new way of supporting themselves once their popular egg production business comes to an end.  
In December, the abbey announced it would begin phasing out the 56-year-old business, citing pressure from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals over treatment of chickens as one of the reasons. Public protests and a threatened boycott by PETA that started in summer 2007 put unwanted pressure on the Trappist monks and interfered with their quiet life of prayer and work.  
The end of the egg business means the abbey must find a new way to support itself. Sales averaging nine million eggs a year have generated around $140,000, which is about 60 percent of the abbey’s annual income, according to figures released by Abbot Stan Gumula.
A 10-member New Industry Advisory Panel met in early March to brainstorm ideas of how the monks could continue to make a living. Members of the panel included Charleston area business executives such as David Schools, CEO of Piggly Wiggly; members of the business and banking communities; an organic farmer; and two representatives of the Catholic community.  
The panel learned what resources the abbey has to devote to new enterprises, then spent the day in small groups brainstorming about possible new ventures for the monastery.  
In a statement, Abbot Gumula said he was impressed with suggestions the panel generated.  
“We hope to find a business that will respect the monastic tradition of working on the land and caring for the environment, and the advisory panel’s ideas certainly meet these criteria,” he said. “Our land is a wonderful resource, and … the panel has come up with great ways for us to use it creatively and wisely.”  
Members of the panel agreed there should be an effort to find new products that can be sold locally so the monastery can maintain its strong connection with neighbors.  
Mepkin’s eggs have been available in Piggly Wiggly grocery stores for years. Since its establishment in 1949, the monks also have sold bread, flowers, timber, milk and beef cattle to support their way of life.  
Panel members came up with a variety of suggestions, including agricultural products as diverse as bamboo, mushrooms, heirloom corn and wheat, organic vegetables, and beets to be used as an organic road deicer.  
Non-agricultural suggestions included licensing beer, book scanning and establishing a public cemetery on the Mepkin property.  
“There’s a lot of work and planning that needs to be done,” said panel member Dennis Atwood,  retired chief financial officer for the Diocese of Charleston. “The abbey has a lot of challenges, including an aging work force and not a lot of working capital to fund a new operation. The abbey is a wonderful resource and it’s a shame they’re having to face this.”
Atwood thought the public cemetery idea was a good one.  
“There’s obviously got to be a future demand for that kind of service, and a lot of people are going to want traditional burials,” he said.  
Msgr. James A. Carter, pastor of Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant, said any agricultural venture would need to take into account Mepkin’s aging work force and existing resources. He said the monks will probably have to consider both long-range projects and a number of smaller projects that will help sustain the monastery in the interim.  
“I suggested bamboo, especially because they have the property to plant bamboo and it doesn’t require a lot of care,” Msgr. Carter said. “The wood is becoming extremely popular for use in paneling and flooring, and in China they’ve even started using it for fabric. Some people say its softness is similar to cashmere.”  
Msgr. Carter also suggested raising mushrooms or beets. In recent years, some communities in the northern United States have started using road deicers derived from desugared beets.  
“This beet substance is environmentally friendly and doesn’t corrode like salt,” he said.  
The abbey needs to consider new ventures, but also how to maximize revenue that can be drawn from existing assets, according to Robert Macdonald, a retired museum director from New York City who has been a close friend and consultant for the abbey for many years.  
Macdonald said Mepkin’s gardens and grounds are already an important year-round tourist draw for Berkeley County, and the annual Advent Creche Festival has become increasingly popular.  
Recent upgrades to the abbey shop by Father Guerric Heckel have drawn even more visitors.
Macdonald  said the panel suggested the abbey increase the use of its conference center by businesses and other groups, and look into increasing its retreat program. Other suggestions included expanding the sale of existing abbey products such as fruitcakes and Drizzle, a syrup that can be used over desserts, meats and other dishes.  
“The reality is that the abbey will probably be unable to make up the shortfall from the loss of the egg business solely through labor-intensive agricultural ventures,” he said. “The solutions to this situation will be varied. It’s going to be a combination of saving money, finding new sources of revenue and increasing the income stream from current resources the abbey already has.”  
Schools said he believes the abbey will eventually combine several ventures in order to replace their lost revenue. He said his company will continue its long-term relationship with Mepkin Abbey. Mepkin’s eggs are popular items at Piggly Wiggly stores around the Lowcountry and at other locations in the state.  
“Piggy Wiggly Carolina has committed to sell whatever food products the abbey is able to produce, and therefore we somewhat selfishly hope that whatever solution or solutions are tried, that food production is included among them,” Schools said. “We are extremely proud of our mutually beneficial, long-term relationship with Mepkin Abbey.”