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Grebel lectures explore Mennonite farmers’ relationship with faith and food production

Care for the earth rooted in Christian faith continues to be a strong motivator for Mennonite farmers around the world, a Conrad Grebel University College audience heard recently.

Food and Faith was the focus of the 20th annual Bechtel lecture at Grebel. The series, sponsored by retired Waterloo Region farmer Lester Bechtel, explores a variety of topics related to Mennonite history, identity, faith and culture.

The two-part event began with a Friday evening screening of Seven Points on Earth, a documentary by Winnipeg filmmaker Paul Plett.

The film captures the lives of seven Mennonites farming in Indonesia, Siberia, Zimbabwe, Nether- lands, Bolivia, Iowa and Manitoba.

It provides a fascinating picture of farming and faith on four continents. The film was co-produced by Roy- den Loewen, a history professor and chair in Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Loewen, who appears in the film, spent two years visiting seven Mennonite farm villages with graduate students from around the world. His book based on that research, Seven Points on Earth: The Mennonite Farmer and the Environment in the Twentieth Century World, is under review by Johns Hopkins University Press for publication in 2021.

Plett fielded questions following the screening. In making the film, he asked each farmer the same questions and tried to focus on commonalities. While most spoke explicitly of the importance of their faith, the focus of their prayers was unique to their situation.

Jeremy Hildebrandt, who farms in Manitoba with his wife, Meghan, said that while his family regularly gives thanks, they do not ask God to bring rain, knowing that they can trust God to provide.

By contrast, subsistence farmer Hetta Dube of Zimbabwe, an African nation where the rains can be scarce and unpredictable, spoke of praying for rain and celebrating when God responded.

A Saturday session featured a panel of five Ontario farmers, including small, large, conventional and organic operations.

For Sarah Martin-Mills of Growing Hope Farm in Cam- bridge, faith is a big part of why she operates a non-for-profit goat, fruit and egg operation. Growing Hope invites women from a nearby prison, at-risk youth and other marginalized individuals to experience the outdoors by volunteering with her.

Sarah Martin-Mills says donating the profits from her farm to help people overseas is an expression of her faith.Sarah Martin-Mills says donating the profits from her farm to help people overseas is an expression of her faith.

Martin-Mills, who does not draw a salary from the five-acre farm, works a part-time, off-farm job to help pay the bills. She has donated $32,000 in profits from the operation to Mennonite Central Committee’s overseas food security programs over the past three years.

Jesus talks a lot about wealth and distributing it to help the poor, she said, noting that as an “extremely privileged” white Canadian, “that weighs on me heavily, a lot.”
She sees giving back to the local and global community through the farming system as an expression of faith.

Mark Reusser has a large turkey and cash crop operation near New Dundee. He also serves as vice- president of the Ontario Federation of individuals to experience the outdoors by volunteering with her.

Martin-Mills, who does not draw a salary from the five-acre farm, works a part-time, off-farm job to help pay the bills. She has donated $32,000 in profits from the operation to Mennonite Central Committee’s overseas food security programs over the past three years.

Jesus talks a lot about wealth and distributing it to help the poor, she said, noting that as an “extremely privileged” white Canadian, “that weighs on me heavily, a lot.”

She sees giving back to the local and global community through the farming system as an expression of faith.

Mark Reusser has a large turkey and cash crop operation near New Dundee. He also serves as vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture farm lobby.

In the early 1990s, he was cropping 1,100 acres of land. He worked 16 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, leaving the house before his children were awake and returning after they had gone to sleep.

Eventually, he realized there had to be a better way, one that made space for family time. “My faith tells me you can’t do (only) a single thing in your life. Life is about a lot of different things.”

Reusser, who spent his first seven years living alongside Amish families in Ohio, has always felt that farming and living in the country was part of his faith. For him, farming is not singularly about growing crops.

“I am a steward. I am called to be a steward of the earth, and I think we all are.”

His conviction comes from the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, and his realization that he is only on the earth for a short time. “I should leave the earth in as good a condition for my children, and for future generations, as it is for me.’’

Climate change is a symptom of a larger problem, he said. “The big- ger problem is that we are not being good stewards of the land.”

He views farmland as being a perpetual, yet non-renewable resource that he needs to work at stewarding better.

Angie Koch runs Fertile Ground Farm, a four-acre vegetable operation on 10 acres of land near St. Agatha. Farming was a different career than she expected after doing social development studies. Earlier generations of her family farmed, but she didn’t grow up on a farm. “You can tell that I am an urban person, because I dare to call farming a career.”

Koch, who has operated Fertile Ground for 13 years, describes herself as “a Mennonite who farms, but I’m not sure I really see myself as a Mennonite farmer.”

“I am a steward. I am called to be a steward of the earth, and I think we all are.”
— Mark Reusser

She sells produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable operation. Customers subscribe in advance for a share of what will be produced in the season. Koch also sells produce to retail stores and a local farmers market. The CSA model provides a more predictable income than some farms, as it involves some shared risk, she said.

Koch sees the farm as “a kitchen table in the local community.”

“I love feeding people, I love providing an opportunity for members and especially their kids to connect with their food, to connect with the land.”

For Mark Reusser, farming is about more than just growing crops.For Mark Reusser, farming is about more than just growing crops.

Koch does not take success for granted.

“I do not fundamentally trust that everything will work out,” she said. “Maybe that’s a failure of faith, or maybe that is just a refusal to elevate myself above the many farmers whose crops do fail, who pray for rain and receive drought.”

She struggles with the fact that western farming is housed in a colonial view of land ownership and that agriculture is at odds with natural ecosystems. “We cultivate monocultures, nature loves diversity.”

Angie Koch’s vegetable farm is “a kitchen table in the local community.”Angie Koch’s vegetable farm is “a kitchen table in the local community.”

Koch worries about the degree to which farmers have to disturb the natural order to succeed. “As a farmer in the Anabaptist tradition, I wonder what it means to be a pacifist in the context of our relationship with land and landscapes.’’

Other speakers at the event included:

  • Lloyd Frey, who with his wife Shirley has a third-generation dairy and cash crop farm and grain elevator north of Elmira.
  • Chris Mullet Koop, a fifth-generation Niagara Peninsula farmer who grows grapes and eggs near Jordan.

During a question and answer period, several speakers lamented the extent to which urban consumers have become disconnected from food production. Trust of farmers has dropped along with that.

“What really bothers me is when we use the kind of food we eat as a cudgel to attack each other,” Reusser said.

Eating together is core to many faith traditions, friendship and fellowship, he noted.

The farming community could use help in learning to talk to consumers as well as farmers who operate in different fashions, Martin- Mills suggested. “We have so much trouble having this conversation. Intervention is maybe needed.”