This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Agriculture firm, village church thrive together in Siberia

GVARDEYSK, Russia — An economic miracle is underway in a western Siberian village founded in 1911 by Mennonite settlers from Ukraine. Two men around the age of 40, Jakob Dirksen and David Epp, have created a farm there with 14,826 acres of land and 40 employees.

Their village was originally called Waldheim, named after a location in the Mennonite Molochna colony of Ukraine. Today it is better known as Apollonovka and sits about 30 miles north of Issilkul, the border crossing for trains to and from Ka­zakh­stan.

Jakob Dirksen with his wife, Nelli, and daughter Vereina at their home in Apollonovka, Russia. The village was originally named Waldheim, after a Mennonite colony in Ukraine. — Reinhard Assmann
Jakob Dirksen with his wife, Nelli, and daughter Vereina at their home in Apollonovka, Russia. The village was originally named Waldheim, after a Mennonite colony in Ukraine. — Reinhard Assmann

“Our firm’s success has meant a lot for our village,” said Dirksen, the director. “The last two years were less successful, but in the last 13 years we have generally enjoyed great success. Much progress has been made.”

Co-owner David Epp said things were still touch-and-go around 2000.

“Many were fixing to move to Germany,” he said. “But due to the success of a feed mill [operated by relatives], they decided to remain.”

Epp himself is a returnee from Germany and the younger brother of Peter Epp, a Mennonite historian from Issilkul. Three of the firm’s 40 workers are returnees from Germany.

“If we continue to succeed on the land and there will be no war, then we can expect a very promising future,” Dirksen said. “We have been able to supply people with bread and work. This has helped our congregation, for we have the practice in our church of paying the tithe. If business is good, then things are also good for our church.”

A new and larger Mennonite church building was dedicated in Apollonovka in April. In a village of 850 inhabitants, 900 people attended the opening dedication. The Mennonite congregation has 230 baptized members.

The community has enjoyed the fruits of success. Every spring, a road grader produced in Russia supplies usable gravel roads. It’s a gift from a Mennonite businessman in Canada.

Dirksen’s and Epp’s enterprise calls itself Willock Farm, but it consists of two separate firms. Since 2006, the firm Sevmaster in the neighboring village of Medvezhye has been producing harrows, harrow springs, discs and carts for hauling planters. This way, the enterprise supplies workers with year-round employment. When there is snow, the entire workforce is indoors producing implements.

“This is a longtime issue for villages,” said Epp, the brain behind Sevmaster. “Farming was always a seasonal trade. During winter, people resorted to drinking or would leave for the city and never come back.”

He said the state responds with gratitude.

“We feel ourselves in no way under pressure,” Epp said. Local authorities “place a lot of trust in us Germans, for they know we keep our promises.”

The secret of success

During the 1990s, Mennonite Central Committee funded an agricultural project in Nieudachino, east of Omsk. Dirksen attributes its failure to the fact it was “attached to an old, existing collective farm. Those involved were unbelievers. They prolonged the life of a corrupt system. But we were able to start up with younger persons not acquainted with the old system.”

The owners question the business practices of a former collective farm employing 400 workers about 18 miles to the south in the village of Solntsevka.

“They have too many workers; they are underemployed,” Epp said. “They have modern technology, but everything is too big. That keeps them from working economically. Salaries remain low. If the collective farm had gone belly-up earlier and one could have begun anew from scratch, then the enterprise might still have been successful.”

Solntsevka is also a largely German and Mennonite village. Ten Willock employees are commuting to work from this village.

Dirksen and Epp stress their enterprise would never have gotten off the ground without the aid of a large-scale Mennonite farmer from Canada with Russian roots. Eighty-year-old Walter Willms of Abbotsford, B.C., produced the multi-million-dollar, interest-free loans needed to found the company.

“Uncle Walter,” as his protégés fondly call him, first visited Apollonovka in 1997. The sale of his farm near Fort St. John made the construction of a feed mill in Apollonovka possible. The experiment was a success, and the loan was quickly repaid. Afterward, a bakery also came into being.

“Uncle Walter” started the project with Epp and Dirksen in 2002. He built a residence in Apollonovka and still spends roughly a month per year there.

The firm was registered under the names of Willms and his wife, Anna. Epp and Dirksen began farming with an old tractor on 890 acres. In 2006, an additional investor, Anna’s brother Arthur Block, joined the venture. A year later, a rundown collective farm in Medvezhye was purchased.

“The contract was so written from the beginning that David and I would be capable of becoming co-owners,” Dirksen said. “That was a great incentive for us.”

Roughly 40 percent of the loans have been repaid, and final repayment appears possible in the foreseeable future.

From the outset, Willms went to the effort of schooling the pair.

“Walter has all kinds of experience with farming,” Epp said. “So we sat at his feet and learned.”

A Christian enterprise

The Sevmaster enterprise doesn’t leave matters of faith behind.

“We place trust in our workers,” Epp said. “When filling a tractor with diesel, we do not check up on them afterward. Matters need to remain Christian. We see to it that no one is exploited.”

All taxes are paid. Suspicions of corruption must always be avoided. There is no work on Sundays, even during harvest.

The Russian state seems committed to retaining “good people” in rural areas. Epp said the state presented him with roughly $30,000 for construction of his house.

The men are only mildly optimistic regarding the transfer of their model to other projects. It would be possible, if there were other “Uncle Walters” out there.

They had never heard of Mennonite Economic Development Associates, which is involved with large government-sponsored projects in Ukraine.

It is clear that without well-paying jobs, the continued exit of Russia’s Protestants is unstoppable. Churches dependent long-term on the wallets of Western friends harbor little promise for the future. Dirksen and Epp show the way for a possible resolution.

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