Mennonite Farmers

by Royden Loewen
Mennonite Farmers
is an environmental history that juxtaposes life in the twentieth century in starkly diverse contexts. Its main contribution to global environmental history lies in a comparison of micro-histories of seven distinctive places.  Through comparison, it crystallizes the questions of relevance to place and sustainability. It finds in the intricacies of everyday life the commonalities facing agriculture everywhere and the distinctions that give each place sustainability.

Now, you might think of Mennonite farmers as some homogeneous community of culturally quaint agriculturalists. They are in fact a remarkably disparate group cultivating the soil in countries from around the world.  Indeed, especially during the twentieth century, the Mennonites have become a truly global people. There are more Mennonites in Africa than in North America, more in India than in Canada, many more in Java than Pennsylvania. They have become a truly global people.

I use this fact to study seven farm communities from around the world. They constitute seven distinct places, one each in Santa Cruz (eastern Bolivia), Manitoba (Canada), Java Peninsula in Indonesia, Friesland in the northern Netherlands, southern Siberia (Russia), Iowa in the U.S., and Matabeleland in southwestern Zimbabwe. The seven communities are set in specific climatic zones – the maritime, semi-arid, and tropical among others – and accompanying soil types – alluvial deposits, chernozem clay, jungle silts, glacial derived loess, etc. In broad, farmers grow wheat in Manitoba and Siberia, corn in Iowa, soybeans in Bolivia, rice in Java, potatoes in Friesland, and variously they raise pigs and chickens, run dairies and apiaries. And they include a variety of societies: 4 of the 7 are settler communities where white farmers live alongside Indigenous people (variously the Anishinaabe, Meskawki, Quechua, Kirghiz, etc.), 2 are mission-originated communities in post-colonial contexts, 1 is Friesland, the birthplace of Menno Simons, the namesake of the Mennonites, who grew up on a farm in the Netherlands in the 1500s. 

These 7 communities are also remarkably culturally distinct, with farmers variously named Margriet, Calvin, Sumarmi, Vladimir, Abram, etc. The fact that the 160 farmers interviewed for this project – almost as many women as men, equal numbers from the Global North and South – spoke to a team of gifted, young researchers in 7 different languages is testament to that diversity.  Even within their Mennonite identities, these farmers differed as well: there are horse-and-buggy Amish in Iowa and Old Colonists in Bolivia, pacifist evangelical Baptists in Siberia, animistic inclined believers in Java and Matabeleland, and remarkably liberal Christians in the Netherlands. Similarly, the political contexts vary, from liberal democracies in the Global North, post-colonial states in the Global South, a former communist state in Siberia. 


Yet these farmers all have three characteristics in common. 

First, they are in fact farmers, and as such share the common vocation of coaxing the soil, combined with sunlight, water, and microbial activity, to produce food for human consumption. This means they work outdoors, know the travails of weather, the capriciousness of markets, the fragility of the soil, and worry about passing land onto the next generation. 

Second, they know the twentieth century as a time of profound change with far-reaching wars, struggles for liberation, and revolutions affecting 5 of the 7 places. These events shaped the very foundation of agriculture. As importantly, each of the 7 places confronted the lure of technology – mechanical, chemical, genetic—no matter that they also represent remarkably distinct levels of wealth and poverty. Perhaps the Zimbabweans use donkeys and oxen while the Iowans and Manitobans practice precision agriculture from GPS-driven tractors, but all have been introduced to chemical-based agriculture based on GMO seeds linked to multinational corporations having a nose for the farthest reaches of the farming world. 

But third, they are all “Mennonite” in a particular way. This means they have all at some point in their histories affirmed pacifist ways, teachings on simplicity, and some level of communitarianism. Yet, given their remarkable differences, these teachings have impacted their agriculture in remarkably distinctive ways. Ironically, the Dutch Doopsgezinden, the original Mennonites are the first to claim that old teachings have nothing to do with their farming practices. When the Siberians reflect on their 3-generation histories on oppressive collectives and then state farms – sequentially the Kolkhoz and Sovkhoz – they separate industrialized day jobs from life-giving times in large family gardens. The Iowa Old Order Amish and Bolivian Old Colonists, of course, are the most directly affected by old Anabaptist teachings on simplicity. The historic mission villages in Matabeleland and Java are “Mennonite” in their communitarian impulses, but old mystical, animistic ways are still invoked to make meaning from nature. Modern Mennonites in Manitoba and Iowa are sharply divided on organic and chemical-based agriculture, each able to claim the moral high ground of regenerative agriculture. What became apparent in our research was that religion mattered, and even the Anabaptist distinctiveness of faith, just not in predictable or uniform ways.

But that is also the way of agriculture in the 20th century. This comparative global history reveals the common questions farmers ask around the world. It also shows, that even for communities that share a common cultural identity the meaning of “place and sustainability” varies profoundly. Food production intersects with big questions of climate change, technological determination, soil sustainability, and the more we know how these big questions have been filtered by local experience the better grasp we have on facing a sustainable future.

Royden Loewen is a senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg. His books include Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World and Village among Nations: "Canadian" Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916–2006. Mennonite Farmers: A Global History of Place and Sustainability.

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