Mennonite Environmental History

The term “Mennonite environmental history” yields only nine results when entered in a Google search. That is astounding, given the extent to which white Mennonites’ narratives of peoplehood are bound up with imagery of tilling and harvesting—as well as the degree to which Anabaptism and soil are linked in public imaginations. Recent New York Times articles featuring “Mennonite” in the title are exclusively devoted to issues of land, agriculture, and food: “Mennonite farmers prepare to leave Mexico,” “A Mennonite’s knack for fine goat cheese,” “Mennonite farmers struggle with water shortage,” and “Eat like a Mennonite.” While other reporting certainly focuses on topics from conscientious objection to sexual politics, surely no idea is more closely tied to popular North American perceptions of Anabaptism than the environment.image1-17

In this light, the latest issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies is an important and long overdue milestone. The first full volume of scholarship devoted to Mennonite environmental history, this special issue brings together papers presented at a conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba last year on “Mennonites, Land and the Environment.” The conference was hosed by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies as well as Royden Loewen, Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, who in 2005 published the first academic article on Mennonites and environmental history. As Loewen explains in his editor’s foreword, the nucleus of the recent conference—as well as the resulting volume—formed around a multi-year research project, “Seven Points on Earth,” which the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada funded in order to enable study of the environmental history of Mennonite communities in Bolivia, Canada, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Russia, the United States, and Zimbabwe.

This essay aims to offer an interpretive and critical review of the articles collected in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment.” My intention is to illuminate what makes the volume’s contributions so interesting and refreshing to read, while also suggesting a number of possible future directions for the still fledgling field of Mennonite environmental history. To start with the obvious: this volume is a timely and much needed corrective to the surprising paucity of literature on Mennonites and the environment. In an era of rapid climate change, biodiversity loss, and growing resource scarcity, we should all be studying and acting on environmental issues. If ever there were a time for Anabaptist history, theology, and practice to join an urgent, planet-wide conversation, it is now.

The 2017 Journal of Mennonite Studies admirably addresses its topic from a global perspective. Arguably, Anabaptism has been a global movement from the beginning, shaped by the mobile, transnational forces of the Reformation and quickly exported to Eastern Europe, the far side of the Atlantic, and later to Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Since the twentieth century, the church’s demographic weight—like most Christian denominations—has shifted decidedly to the Global South, indicating that a historiography disproportionately focused on Europe and the Americas is now badly out of balance. Given the uneven degree to which Anabaptist historians have thus far told the story of the global church, the articles in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment,” offer varying degrees of nuance and innovation, depending on the geographic locations they cover. Taking the pieces more or less in chronological order, a few preliminary thoughts are as follows:

First, the section on the Netherlands provided fascinating insights into seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch Mennonite rural transformation and visual art. Although the role of Mennonites in the Dutch Golden Age is comparatively well studied, it remains only poorly integrated into larger histories of Anabaptism. Generally, this period is portrayed as exceptional, having relatively little bearing on the more “typical” conservative white agrarian Mennonite communities in Russia and the Americas that were only at their nascent stage during this era. Second, in the section on Mennonites in North America, I appreciated the authors’ attention to changes within and challenges to agrarian lifestyles. These pieces do important work to contextualize narratives of land use rather than treating them as immemorial.

If one looks beyond the pale of Mennonite studies, the section on Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union seems perhaps the most historiographically important part of this volume. The Black Sea region appears, on the evidence presented here, to be one place where Mennonite agriculture made a truly substantial impact, contributing both to the construction of the Russian state and also to narratives of East European modernity. The authors portray Mennonites as an unusually useful group to study with relation to agronomy across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, into the Soviet period and beyond. As revealed in the section on Bolivia, the hundreds of thousands of Low German-speaking Mennonites now living in Latin America are in many ways the most direct inheritors of this Russian tradition, so even the physical proximity of articles on these topics in one volume is revealing.

From a Mennonite studies standpoint, the sections on Indonesia and Zimbabwe cover the most important new ground. Anabaptist scholarship in North America generally and the Journal of Mennonite Studies in particular have tended—for both institutional and ideological reasons—to focus on white Mennonites with a general, sometimes latent, master narrative of migration from Europe, relative isolation and/or persecution, and perseverance through hard work, whether in the traditional patriarchal sense, or in an inverted way via the struggles of women and other underrepresented groups against the constraints of traditional authority. These articles challenge that master narrative in valuable ways: one essay on the environmental ethics of the nineteenth-century Javanese apostle Tunggul Wulung offers a non-European source of Anabaptist agency, as does another piece on pre-colonial environmental practices in southern Africa. To these might be added an earlier article on Mennonite-indigenous relations in Manitoba, which emphasizes the settler-colonial nature of white immigration, taking local Métis as an alternative narrative center of moral authority.

Where to go from here? “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” will not remain the only volume on Anabaptist environmental history for long, so it is worth considering the extent to which the 2017 issue of Journal of Mennonite Studies can and should stand as a touchstone at the birth of a field. First, I think some rather high-level theorizing might be in order for any future synthetic work on Mennonites and environment. Within North American Mennonite studies, Anabaptist history has been dominated by social and, more recently, cultural history. Those traditions remain dominant strands in this volume, with the tools of environmental history often present yet playing a secondary role. If one were to begin from an environmental history perspective, rather than simply adding in environmental analysis here and there, much of this volume would look different.

For example, there would have to be some serious assessment about whether and how Mennonites are important at all, were we to start with the premise of Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange, Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, or William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, to name a few classic examples. I suspect an honest treatment of Anabaptism in environmental history might ultimately depict Mennonites as marginal figures operating within much larger trends: the formation of modern industrial economies, the trans-oceanic movements of seeds and animals, and the ongoing global transformation of agrarian landscapes. Mennonite actors retain an inordinate degree of narrative agency in the volume at hand. Noting some minor exceptions, such as in Tsarist Russia, I am not convinced—environmentally speaking—that they are deserving.

My second suggestion would be to take seriously the lessons of transnational history—which Royden Loewen and others have persuasively argued is uniquely suited to understanding the environmental context of at least some Mennonite communities. By contrast, most of the articles in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” exhibit a more narrow community-centric model of narration, with the global Mennonite church divided up more or less by nationality like an enormous pie. The volume’s essay-collection format may overdetermine methodological nationalism, although some laudable examples of transnational scholarship are present here.

One meta question raised by a volume like this is, of course: why put these predominantly nationally-organized stories side by side in the first place? The basic assumption seems to be that Mennonites, globally considered, are worth studying together, including in the context of agriculture. On one hand, the point is to show diversity. Loewen notes in his foreword that “The [journal] issue makes no case for an ‘Anabaptist’ approach to the land,” and indeed, some of the articles’ primary conclusions are simply that agriculture as practiced by Mennonites in, say, the present-day Netherlands does not conform to traditional narratives of Anabaptist history and identity as recounted in North American academies.

But such disruptions are only interesting to a point. It would be valuable to consider how connected any of these case studies really are. Given that Mennonite historians have disproportionately emphasized agriculture as a through-line in their narrations of some groups’ movements across the Atlantic world—with sovereigns and migration agents emphasizing Mennonites’ alleged agrarian qualities along the way—we might follow how environmental thought and practice has mediated movements across and also within borders.

Finally, if future scholars of Mennonite environmental history choose to retain this volume’s global emphasis while also taking transnationalism seriously, I will be eager to see how they treat the Global South. From a Eurocentric or North-dominant view, the story would presumably be one of transmission through institutions (Loewen mentions Mennonite World Conference in his foreword) or individuals (missionaries figure prominently in the Indonesia and Zimbabwe sections). Alternatively, the tale might be one of failure by locals to develop Western Mennonite agrarian traditions, much as some early histories of missions narrated the disinclination of locals to wear bonnets and cape dresses. Both of these options are self-evidently problematic, however, since they presuppose the normality of Western institutions and perspectives, in turn raising the question of whether and how Mennonites studies departments and forums like the Journal of Mennonite Studies can create multi-centered approaches to Anabaptist scholarship.

Taken as a whole, this volume does not yet meet the challenge. Its starting premise is that Mennonite history should be studied from an environmental perspective; many of the individual articles subsequently justify this belief through reference to an Anabaptist agrarian tradition identified as unique and significant primarily in Western contexts. Thus, the final result sends an implied message to readers that Mennonites of color outside the industrialized West either deviate from or fail to live up to a “standard” white-ethnic Anabaptist model.

My critique is meant not to dissuade but to encourage widespread use and thoughtful engagement with this special issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies. The many authors who have contributed to the volume have enriched our historiographical horizons invaluably, while also adding extensively to our knowledge regarding communities on five continents. “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” will be of great significance to anyone studying Anabaptism and environmental history over the coming years. It will certainly be a testament to this volume if the ideas and methodologies offered here undergo sustained testing and rigorous transformation in future works. Many more of us, after all, should be thinking critically and innovatively about our local communities and our planetary home, given the real environmental challenges ahead.

Ben Goossen is a global historian of religion and science at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

Soybeans and Milk: Community and Commodification in a Bolivian Mennonite Colony

Since 2013, seven researchers have been investigating Mennonite agricultural practice in farming communities around the globe as part of Royden Loewen’s “7 Points on Earth Project.”  We first met in Amsterdam in December of that year to discuss the logistics of conducting oral histories in small farming communities and to introduce one another to our research sites.  These extended from regions traditionally associated with the Mennonite faith and farming, including nearby Friesland, the U.S. and Canadian prairies, and Russia, to less well known Mennonite communities in Bolivia, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe.  Leaving Amsterdam, we scattered to our seven points.  I spent five months in mid-2014 and one month in the spring of 2015 in the Department of Santa Cruz in the tropical eastern lowlands of Bolivia traveling muddy colony roads by bicycle as I conducted interviews with Mennonites farmers.

Street Scene in Riva Palacio

On October 28-29 we will be reconvening in Winnipeg to discuss our findings as part of a public conference on “Mennonites, Land, and the Environment.”  For those that may not be able to attend the conference I offer here a brief portrait of Mennonite history and farming in one of those Seven Points on Earth.

While Mennonites migrated to Bolivia from Canada, Paraguay and Belize, the majority were horse-and-buggy “Old Colony” Mennonites from Northern Mexico who began to settle in the department of Santa Cruz in 1967.  Their migration offers observers a compelling paradox.  On the one hand, they were part of a religious pilgrimage to maintain traditional ways they saw as under threat in modernizing North American Mennonite colonies.  On the other hand, they successfully presented themselves to the Bolivian government as modern farmers, capable of transforming the densely forested landscape of lowland Bolivia into a series of productive agricultural colonies.

As Mexican Mennonites approach their fifty year anniversary in Bolivia and the country’s Mennonite population nears 100,000, that duality remains as apparent as ever.  Old Colonists, most of whom continue to use horse-and-buggies on the roads and lumbering steel-wheeled tractors in the fields, might appear to live traditional, isolated lives.  Yet they are also key producers for a regional economy that has emerged as one of Bolivia’s largest and most dynamic.  They farm over a third of Bolivia’s soybeans, the country’s star agricultural crop, with a harvest in 2015 of over two million metric tons and an export value of one billion U.S. dollars.  As soy farmers they are at the center of a broad swath of South America – including portions of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina – that now produces the majority of the world’s soy.

A field of soybeans in Riva Palacio colony

Even as Mennonites generate this high-value, export-oriented commodity that depends on intense mechanization, nearly every farmer in Riva Palacio, Bolivia’s largest Mennonite colony and my primary research site, rises early in the morning to milk their herd of dairy cattle by hand.  Buckets clang and wooden stools are set down as the entire family – men, women and children – take part in this laborious daily activity which will be repeated again in the early evening.  By the time the last cow is milked the sun is usually rising and one member of the family pushes a cart laden with brimming metal jugs out to the corner to wait for the milk-men that travel through the village by horse cart.

Milk awaiting pickup at the entrance to a Mennonite homestead

The practice is both intimate and, for scholars of Old Colony Mennonites, historical in nature.  While Mexican Mennonites had never produced soybeans before arriving in Bolivia, they successfully transplanted a dairy industry from Chihuahua to Santa Cruz.  Farmer Enrique Siemens still remembers the first year in Bolivia when as a young boy he drank powdered milk because there were no dairy cattle to be had in local markets.  In 1969, his father traveled with a friend to neighboring Paraguay to bring back the colony’s first Holstein cattle – a journey of forty days.  “When I arrived back at home [from school] the cow was already there,” he exclaims, “and oh[!] after that we were happy, then we had milk.”

Enrique Siemens sits in his buggy during an interview with the author

What to make of this dual – and diametrically opposed – agrarian economy?  The respective meanings attached to cash cropping and dairy farming in Bolivian Mennonite colonies form a central aspect of my research.  Linked with nourishment and happiness in Siemens’ memories, daily family milk production seems to stand in opposition to the capital-intensive cash-cropping of export commodities like soybeans.  Indeed, even the income earned from the two activities is treated in different ways.  Harvest money might be invested in new land and machinery to expand one’s operations.  Milk money, by contrast, provides regular access to goods on credit at the colony’s small stores – particularly critical in drought years when the harvest might fail altogether.

An example of this form of accounting can be seen below for David Unger, a farmer in a nearby Paraguayan Mennonite colony.  For each two week period, daily milk production (morning and evening) is divided into that which was of a quality to be sold as milk and that which, due to its higher bacterial content, is only suitable for making cheese.  From those two balances Unger’s purchases at the colony store over the same period are deducted and the balance is passed on to him.


Jakob Unger’s biweekly balance sheet, Canadiense Colony

Yet, the intimate snapshot of daily milking can be deceptive.  Dairy, a fringe industry when Mennonites arrived in Santa Cruz, is now, like soybeans, big business.  It is no coincidence that both the milk and the soy produced in Mennonite colonies find their way to Santa Cruz’s sprawling industrial park.  There, across the highway from one another sit IOL Aceite, the largest oil-seed production plant in Bolivia and PIL Andina, the country’s sole major dairy distributor.

IOL has been encouraging Mennonite soy production with seed and credit since the mid-seventies.  In contrast, PIL only began to install collection centers on the edge of most major colonies in 2000.  This has led to changes for the company and for colonists.  Mennonites once processed all of their milk as cheese to be sold in the streets of Santa Cruz.  Farmer Cornelio Peters remembers that “before, the milk was worthless…there was too much [cheese] with all the Mennonites here in Bolivia.”

The arrangement between PIL and the Mennonites appears mutually beneficial.  The presence of the company has meant price stability for Mennonites, while the increased milk supply has also enabled PIL to double its production.  Riva Palacio alone produces approximately 100,000 liters of milk a day. On a tour of the installation in 2014, the operations manager explained that approximately four-fifths of their daily capacity of 500,000 liters came from Santa Cruz’s Mennonite colonies.

As Mennonites moved from independent producers of cheese – which everyone in Bolivia knows as “queso menonita” – to suppliers of a primary input for a large corporation, the potential for tension also exists.

Mennonite cheese (“queso menonita”) for sale in a La Paz grocery store

When I returned to Santa Cruz in 2015 I found Riva Palacio colony up-in-arms.  While PIL had been paying 2 Bolivianos and 30 centavos per liter for their milk, they had recently discovered that the minimum price to be paid to producers – by national decree – was three Bolivianos and fifty centavos.  A hastily formed “Mennonite Federation of Milk Producers” – representing 3000 families – was calling emergency cross-colony meetings, contracting lawyers, and petitioning PIL, the president of Bolivia, Congress and the Senate to demand “a fair price for Mennonite milk.”

Letter from Ombudsman to PIL administration on behalf of Mennonites posted alongside a call for an Extraordinary Meeting of the Mennonite Federation of Milk Producers in the Mennonite Market in Santa Cruz de la Sierra

The above sketches of Mennonite soy and dairy demonstrate not simply the importance of different production strategies to the survival of colonists but the ways in which that daily production – on the fields and in the milking barns – is interwoven with regional and global markets.  Popular and scholarly approaches to Old Colony Mennonites have tended to accept the idea that these are “a people apart.”  Steel wheels and milk jugs at the end of the road tend to confirm such impressions.  Yet whether they are quietly acting as the largest producers of Bolivian soybeans or actively demanding a “fair price for Mennonite milk,” Old Colonists are embedded in broader economic structures.  This is a conversation – about Mennonite history and place-making – that we look forward to continuing at the University of Winnipeg next month.  Hope to see you there!


© Benjamin Nobbs-Thiessen 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material (including images) without express and written permission from this author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Benjamin Nobbs-Thiessen with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mennonite Agriculture in Siberia: Past and Present

In the summer of 2015, I travelled to Siberia as a part of Royden Loewen’s Seven Points on Earth project. My task was to explore how Mennonites in Russia related to the land through interviews and archival research into the history of the village of Apollonovka (formerly Waldheim), located over 100 kilometres from the regional centre of Omsk and 35 kilometres from the nearest railway station. The village was established by Mennonite settlers to the region in 1911, after the tsarist state opened Siberia to agricultural settlement. The search for land propelled hundreds of Mennonite families to undertake the long trek from various parts of the empire to this new frontier.


Late seeding after a wet spring

In the Russian empire, Mennonites showed a strong inclination to adapting their agricultural methods to address the challenges of the local environment. As David Moon has demonstrated, Mennonites performed an important role in the development of agriculture on the steppe, as they successfully planted trees to create shelter for their crops and protect the soil1 along with establishing irrigation methods to address the region’s semi-arid climate.2 In Siberia, Mennonites faced new challenges to adapt to local conditions, especially the shorter growing season. Initially, only some Mennonite farmers employed the four crop rotation method used in southern Russia; eventually most adopted this technique.3

It would be difficult to argue that Mennonites demonstrated adaptability in their agricultural practices out of a concern for the environment born out of their religious conviction. Instead of exemplifying a dedication to sustainable practices, this adaptability arguably reflected a strong commitment to efficient use of the land, rigorous hard work, and a quiet compulsion for wealth without excess materialism.


Cows returning home from for evening milking

Over a hundred years later, the Low German-speaking population of Apollonovka continues to live by the tenets of faith, family, and farming and shows many of the same characteristics despite the intervening years under the communist regime. In spite of current economic difficulties in Russia, locals expressed a strong belief in the future of their children and faith community. In addition to working for one of the three agricultural firms in the village, many have build small barns where they raise pigs for market. Like their ancestors, the inhabitants of Apollonovka have shown resilience and innovation, building local businesses that support the continuation of community life.

  1. David Moon, The Plough That Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 176. 
  2. Ibid., 210. 
  3. Petr Epp, Ne ischezli po milosti Gospoda: Waldheim-Apollonovka, 1911-2011 (Steinhagen: Samenkorn, 2011), 83.