Chortitza region, Russia, October 1922

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#1-Chortitza, Fordson Tractors, Oct 1922

By mid-1922, many of the horses and other draft animals in South Russia had died due to the war and starvation. On June 26, Mennonite Central Committee purchased 25 Fordson tractors and Oliver gang plows, plus necessary spare parts, which left New York on July 24, arriving in Odessa in late August. These first tractor-plow units went to Chortitza and Molotschna. The total cost of the delivered shipment was US$13,838.90. A second shipment of tractors and plows left New York on December 23.

Frank Peachey, Mennonite Central Committee Archives

Hazel’s People

Felipe Hinojosa

hazels-peopleIn 1973 the motion picture Hazel’s People, an adaptation of Merle Good’s novel, Happy as the Grass Was Green, became one of the first mainstream films to depict Mennonite life in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was also the first Mennonite-made feature film. The film followed a young “hippie” named Eric from New York City who came to Lancaster for the funeral of his close Mennonite friend, John. After the funeral, Eric decides to stay in Lancaster, and forms a close relationship with the simple and quiet Mennonites portrayed in the film. But his growing admiration is tempered when he begins working for a prominent Mennonite fruit grower in the area. The grower, who in the film goes by “Rufus,” is cast as a pious businessman who has abandoned many of the traditional values that Eric has come to admire about the Mennonites.

Soon after he is hired, Eric discovers that his new boss is housing Puerto Rican farmworkers in small shacks with no heat and charging them rent at forty dollars a month. Outraged, Eric confronts Rufus’ assistant, Stanley, demanding to know “what those people are doing out in those sheds… it’s thirty-five degrees outside!” Stanley, trying to calm Eric down, discloses that “Puerto Ricans used to give us a lot of trouble drinking and that sort of stuff . . . last summer Rufus got a hold of a Spanish speaking evangelist and since then we’ve hardly had any trouble.”1 When Eric shares what he saw with a Mennonite minister and close friend named Eli, his only response is “You expect too much from us, Eric . . . we disappoint you.” A few scenes later, Eric delivers a fiery sermon at the Mennonite church where Rufus attends, challenging churchgoers to stop building cages, “no more Mennonite cages… no more Puerto Rican cages!”

Have you seen this film? You should. Of course, the film is full of problems. It perpetuates the white savior myth and there are few, if any, Latinas/os in the film. To be fair, the film is not only about the poor labor practices of Mennonite farmers. It’s also about the flaws and the beauty of one Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. But ask Latina/o Mennonite leaders from the 1970s and they will remember Hazel’s People as a film about Mennonite farmers and their mistreatment of Puerto Rican farmworkers. Many Latino/as, including members of my own family, experienced similar conditions while working on Mennonite farms across the Midwest.

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The Tijerina family (author’s family) with the Mennonite family on whose farm they worked, Archbold, Ohio (circa late 1950s)

But the film also came eerily close to portraying a real life case in Goshen, Indiana. In 1969  Rudolfo Blanco, a migrant farm worker, committed suicide at the Pine Manor Turkey processing plant in Goshen, Indiana. The tragedy of Blanco’s suicide exposed the dreadful working and living conditions that many Mexican American farmworkers experienced at the Pine Manor Turkey processing plant. Owned by Mennonite businessman, Annas Miller, Pine Manor regularly attracted Mexican Americans from South Texas to work in its plant. Blanco’s suicide, however, brought to light the negligence of Pine Manor’s management with regards to the living conditions of workers at the plant. Goshen News reporter Don Klassen described the living conditions at Pine Manor as “a brooder house or a tar-paper shack hidden behind tall corn or over the hill, or a room ten by twenty with two or three beds where three to five children sleep in the same bed.”2 To make matters worse, a large open cesspool was within a few feet of the living quarters and created an “unbelievable stench” for the workers and their families living nearby.3

Local church groups in the area initiated a boycott of Pine Manor products in 1969 as the plight of migrant farmworkers in northwestern Indiana, most of whom were from Texas, took center stage for many progressive religious groups. Since at least the late 1950s, Mexican American families had been making the trip north to Indiana to work in the fields and processing plants like Pine Manor. Migrant workers were often recruited to work in the tomato cannery in Milford and the tomato fields in southern Elkhart and northern Kosciusko Counties in northwestern Indiana. In 1970 the annual report on farm labor in Indiana also counted several hundred Puerto Rican migrants from Florida who joined Mexican American workers in the fields and in the turkey processing plants. Working and living conditions for migrant farm workers in northwestern Indiana were so bad that one migrant commented how “from Utah to Wyoming, and Idaho to Kentucky, Virginia, and Alabama, THIS is the worst place… I’m sick of it here—I’ll never come back!”4

The concerns that were raised over how Mennonite farmers treated their workers emerged right at the time when Latina/os took more leadership roles throughout the church. In 1971, the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) hired Lupe De León, Jr., to work as an Associate Secretary in partnership with John Powell. De León, who grew up as a migrant farmworker in the cotton fields of West Texas, immediately raised important questions about the negligence of some Mennonite business owners. De León and other Latino leaders led the charge to get official support from Mennonite church leaders for the lettuce and grape boycotts led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Worker movement. Like Eric in Hazel’s People, Latina/o leaders expected white Mennonites to share in their outrage and openly support the farmworker movement. Sadly, white Mennonite leadership—from MCC to Mennonite Brethren, Old Mennonite, and General Conference leaders—refused to give official support to what became the most successful agricultural rights movement in U.S. history.5 Instead what did happen was that migrant farmworkers like the ones depicted in Hazel’s People found their greatest support from Mennonites in the pews—White, Black, and Brown—ordinary folks who marched, boycotted, stood on the picket lines, and encouraged people to only buy union lettuce and union grapes. These politics, the ones where the people in the pews and the outsiders are leading the charge, make the message of Hazel’s People so relevant for us today. But I also think the film does more than remind us about the importance of grassroots politics.

In my first post, I argued for the deterritorialization of Mennonite studies by moving beyond the familiar geographical spaces that have come to define the Mennonite experience in the United States. But as several of my colleagues have rightly noted in their own posts, much work remains to be done in those familiar spaces. In other words, even as we move out of the familiar and expand the geographic and ethnoracial limits of Mennonite studies, we must also look inward and reimagine the familiar. The notion that we must expand Mennonite studies does not suggest a complete abandonment of the ethno-Mennonite story, but instead a deeper investigation of it. As Hildi Froese Tiessen argued in the book, After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America, the issue here is “not to abandon identity issues in Mennonite [life] altogether but to probe them more vigorously.”6 Hazel’s People does that by portraying Mennonite piety, even as it calls out the aloofness of Mennonites whose peace theology remained silent on labor injustice. Expanding the contours of Mennonite studies will require us to explore multiple forms of evidence from film, music, architecture, and especially the familiar areas that are today being changed by the demographic revolution currently underway in places like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Goshen, Indiana, where the Latino population has been the engine of demographic growth. My hope as a historian is that as we probe Mennonite life and identity more deeply—as we reimagine the familiar—that we also take a stand like Eric’s character did in Hazel’s People and call ourselves out of those Mennonite cages that have kept us from imagining a new and vibrant future for Mennonite studies.


  1. Charles Davis, Hazel’s People, 1973. 
  2. Don Klassen, “Plea for Migrants,” The Goshen News, 14 November 1969. 
  3. Ken Washington, “Protesters to Boycott Pine Manor Products,” The Goshen News, 19 November 1969. 
  4. Quoted in Ben Noll, “A Community of Brotherhood,” unpublished paper, Goshen College, 2009, 4-5, Goshen College, IN. 
  5. For more on this, see my book: Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). 
  6. Hildi Froese Tiessen, After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (Penn State University Press), 212. 

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.

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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!

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© 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.

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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.

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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.