You’ve undoubtedly heard of the Mennonites, at least in some vague way. If you live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, New York, or a smattering of other states, you’ve probably come across one of their horse-drawn buggies on the shoulder of the road, or a simple white church with all-black cars in the parking lot. Maybe you’ve even been tempted to visit Lancaster County (PA) Holmes County (OH) to see what they’re all about. But have you ever wondered how Mennonite farming practices compare with typical, modern farming practices? As closed as these communities can be, do you think there could be opportunity for connection and collaboration in the fight to protect farmworkers and clean up the environment?
But first, there are many misconceptions out there about the Mennonites, and the main one I have to clear up is that Amish and Mennonite are not the same thing. They’re frequently confused for reasons that members inside either community find baffling. As my 91-year-old Plain-Mennonite Grandma insists, “There’s a big difference!” For one, “their dress is so noticeably different.” If you look at this side-by-side comparison below, you may or may not agree:
With apologies to my grandmother, I’m going to go ahead and refer to the many different, yet similar groups of Amish or Mennonite farmers as “plain sect farmers.” Since the Amish/Plain Mennonite communities commit to living out their faith in a visible way, one might wonder: Have plain sect farmers kept themselves distinct from the rest of the modern world by not using harsh modern chemicals and pesticides?
The answer is – no, not really. Amish America states the following:
The perception of the Amish as an antiquated people, living close to the land, may cause some to believe that Amish farm without artificial means. However, the majority of Amish do rely on chemicals and fertilizers to boost crop yield and control pests. Amish, like most American farmers, have relied on artificial means for many decades.
Plain Sect farmers are nothing if not practical. My own Plain Mennonite Grandpa applied pesticides regularly to our crops when I was growing up. In fact, he insisted in taking that task on even after my dad bought and started managing the farm. Now, our family thinks that could be what caused his Parkinson’s disease and cancer, which contributed to his decline in his late 70’s.
Pesticides were to us farmkids – just as they are to farmworker kids – part of life. When we’d pick cherries or strawberries on neighboring farms, we were told not to eat them straight off the branches, since they had to be washed first. But we’d eat some anyway, and the sickly taste of the chemicals combined with the fruit itself was to us the taste of summer.
But there are signs that this is changing, just as it is changing for the overall agricultural industry.
“A minority of Amish do practice organic farming, and increasing numbers are becoming certified organic. Organic farming has been seen as a good fit by some Amish. The higher prices afforded by organic products allow farmers to make a living from smaller acreage, important to the Amish, who face high land prices in many areas.” – Amish America
I, too, noticed this change when visiting the dairy farm across from ours several years after we’d sold it: a Horizon Organic label had been hung on their milking parlor door.
Modern Farmer reported in 2014 that Amish and Mennonites are also the source of a lot of pollution in Lancaster County and elsewhere: “When the EPA visited farms in this area back in 2009, they found.. violations in 85% of the farms, ranging from improperly stored manure, improperly contained cows, and high levels of E. coli in the wells.”
The solution? Government grants that help Plain farmers set up “proper fencing to keep cows out of the creeks, better cattle crossing, and more efficient and safer storage methods for manure.” As a matter of fact, my own family benefited from a similar grant back in the 90’s which paid for our new slurry store (basically a huge storage tank for cow manure). My mom remarks that it made an immediate and noticeable difference in the water quality of the surrounding creeks and streams and talks positively about the program, even though my family skews conservative and is opposed to government assistance (read: interference) of most kinds.
A third question: does the question of farmworker health & safety even apply to Amish/Mennonites, since they normally hire relatives and keep the work within the family?
And the answer is, it might. On my most recent visit with my family in Ohio, it came up that the Plain farm where my brother had worked as a teenager now employed mostly Hondurans. It seemed rather out of the ordinary, but the word was that they had a direct connection to people in Honduras through their missionary work. Though this is the first time I’ve heard of this happening, if it works well for this farm, word of their success will spread quickly via work-of-mouth, and I expect it to catch on in other Anabaptist communities as well. If that is the case, Mennonites could quickly become part of the conversation about the best practices for hiring, housing, paying, and, most importantly, protecting farmworkers.