Seven distant points on the globe are linked by faith and farming in a study undertaken by the University of Winnipeg.
History professor Royden Loewen is hoping to gain a better understanding of how Mennonites connect with each other and the earth by studying agricultural communities in Zimbabwe, Siberia, Bolivia, the Indonesian island of Java, the Netherlands, Manitoba and Kansas. Loewen is also chair of the university’s Mennonite Studies program.
The three-year study will focus primarily on the relationships agricultural communities have to the land, how it shapes them and how that further interacts with government policies, the climate and culture — including religion.
“The way this relates to Mennonites is that we have been disproportionately an agricultural people,” said Loewen by phone while taking a break from tilling wheat stubble at his family’s farm in Manitoba. “This is a very specific subfield — no pun intended — of environmental history.”
Unlike typical environmental history, which uses broad sweeps of quantitative data to look at wide areas, Loewen’s team of seven researchers will conduct oral histories and local historical research.
That level of specificity likely appealed to the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council of Canada, which is funding the project with a $239,000 grant, and was facilitated by Loewen’s connections at Mennonite World Conference.
In Zimbabwe, Belinda Gumbo Ncube is already in the field at Paddenhurst, a mission farm founded in the 1920s northeast of Bulawayo. Anabaptists in Zimbabwe are members of the Brethren in Christ Church.
In Siberia, Appolonovka — formerly known as the Mennonite village of Waldheim before becoming a Soviet collective — is still inhabited by Low German-speaking Anabaptists from Ukraine.
The Witmarsum district in Friesland is the birthplace of Menno Simons with a Mennonite community that dates to as early as 1536. Dutch connections extend to Margorejo, a mission farm village of indigenous families on Java founded in the 1860s by missionaries.
Neubergthal in southern Manitoba was founded by Mennonites from Russia in the mid-1870s, around the same time as the community of Goessel — likely the area of central Kansas that will be visited by University of Iowa doctoral student John Eicher — was also settled by Russian Mennonites.
The study is rounded out by Riva Palacios Colony in Bolivia, settled by Mennonites from Canada and Mexico. The most conservative group in the study, the Bolivian colony travels by horse and buggy and uses steel wheels on tractors as part of a system of checks and balances to maintain small units of production and community ties.
However, Loewen notes those steel-wheeled tractors sometimes carry sprayers distributing Roundup herbicide on genetically modified Monsanto soybeans. From community to community, comparisons and contrasts will abound.
“There have been numerous studies that Mennonite farmers in Kansas historically were smaller-scale farmers who owned the land through more generations and had less debt than had farmers in other backgrounds,” he said.
“Kansas farmers don’t have steel wheels or horses. They are progressive farmers, but when you do comparative analyses, we have to look at nuances and some subtle differences.”
Findings will be compiled in a book authored by Loewen, to be titled Seven Points on Earth. The researchers will present their experiences at an international conference, “Mennonites and the Land,” at the University of Winnipeg in October 2016.
“What does God as Creator mean? What does it mean when you work the land? Does it mean anything at all?” Loewen said. “Basically, what we have are a bunch of questions. But does your religious belief affect the way you relate to the land?
“We know that it does, but what that relationship is, and what that theological implication is, will vary a lot from one community to another.”