“Mennonites, Land and the Environment”
It might have been my farm background that piqued my interest in this year’s Mennonite Studies Conference at the University of Winnipeg. Or maybe it was the quality of presentations that are typically delivered at this annual event, which is sponsored by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies under the leadership of Dr. Royden Loewen, Chair of Mennonite Studies at this university. Or perhaps it was simply the opportunity to rub shoulders with historians whose company and stories I have learned to enjoy. Whatever the reasons, I had the privilege of sitting in on part of Mennonites, Land and the Environment recently.
Given that I’m a farm boy and this was an academic conference, there were certain presentations that I engaged in more readily than others. The lecture Hutterites and Agriculture in Alberta: Past, Present and Future, presented by Simone Evans from the University of Calgary, was interesting and engaging. While it would appear that Hutterites farm vast amounts of land, it actually works out to be only about 600 acres per family unit. Their agricultural practices are contemporary, in fact leading-edge in many cases.
Daniel Leonard from the University of Winnipeg presented a paper on Manitoba’s Voluntary Mennonite Peasant Farmers. Peasant Farmers in Canada are largely professional and business people who have moved from urban settings to small farms. They are often referred to as “back-to-the-landers.” They are typically drawn to the lifestyle offered in a rural setting and the opportunity to grow much of their own food. Their farms range in size from seven to forty acres. In their quest for sustainable practices, some of these farmers will ensure that they have only as many animals as their acreage can support, in terms of both feed production and waste disposal. If the manure from the animals is more than the farm’s acres can utilize as fertilizer, there are too many animals.
Farmers face challenges in balancing sustainable agricultural practices with economics and the need to feed a rapidly growing world population. In past decades the agricultural industry has significantly increased food production per acre in many countries, all the while seeing good farmland taken up by urban sprawl.
Another recurring theme in many presentations was the acknowledgement that much of our farm land was originally land occupied by First Nations people.
Royden Loewen is currently leading a project called Seven Points on Earth, which is examining Mennonite agricultural practices in seven communities in various areas of the world. These are Manitoba, Iowa, Friesland, Java, Siberia, Zimbabwe and Bolivia. Papers addressing each area were presented at the conference, some of which will be published in the 2017 Journal of Mennonite Studies. Subscriptions for this journal are available at [email protected].
It’s good to see Mennonites engaging in these dialogues along with the rest of society.