Agriculture among the Mennonites of Russia

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    The agricultural activities of the Mennonites of Russia can be divided into three periods: 1789-1860, 1860-1917 and 1917-1943.


    When the Mennonites came to Ukraine at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century they settled on the barren steppes. Pioneer conditions made large-scale grain raising impossible and the distance to the market made it unprofitable. Thus stock farming, particularly the breeding of sheep, became the chief occupation. Through the Guardians' Committee the Chortitza settlement received during the first years 30 Merino sheep for which about 18,200 acres of reserved land were set aside. By 1819 the flock consisted of one thousand head. The beginning in the Molotschna settlement was very much the same. A severe winter in 1812-1813 caused great losses not only of sheep but also of horses and cattle. In 1825 the Guardians' Committee charged Johann Cornies with the task of restocking not only the flocks of the Mennonites, but also of the other colonists in the province of Taurida. He purchased sheep from the tsar's own flocks and also imported some rams from Saxony. At that time the average Mennonite farm had between 125 and 150 sheep. Wool found a ready market in the mills of Ekaterinoslav and other places. Sheep breeding reached its highest point between 1836 and 1841 and then gradually began to decline because of the increased competition of fine wool from overseas and also the increase of grain production in the Ukraine.

    The breeding of cattle was more profitable and of longer duration than that of sheep. The early settlers of Chortitza and Molotschna brought with them a considerable number of East Frisian cattle. Under the leadership of Cornies, the chairman of the Agricultural Association, the Mennonites adopted a scientific method of crossing their cattle with local breeds in order to hasten the process of acclimatization. The crossing was made with carefully selected specimens of the East Frisian cattle which they had brought along and the Ukrainian gray cattle as well as Kalmuk cattle. The product of this crossing became known as a Molotschna cow or the German Red cow. The average annual milk production per cow was upward of 580 gallons and the fat content was 3.8 to 4 percent. The breeding of the pure East Frisian cow was also continued. The Mennonites found a good market for butter and cheese in the cities of Berdyansk, Sevastopol, Yevpatoria, Kerch, Taganrog and Ekaterinoslav. The sale of cattle to outsiders at this time was a very important factor. In 1836, 251 cows were sold in the Molotschna settlement; by 1845 the number had risen to 1,429 and declined again to 840 in 1846.

    The horses that the immigrants had brought from West Prussia degenerated during the first decades in Russia. Efforts at improving them were made through the use of stallions of local breeds, which were obtained from the Don Cossacks and later from government studs. The product obtained through this crossing was a combination of farm and carriage horse. It was strongly built, of medium height and usually black or roan in color. With the increase of grain farming, the demand for draft power also increased. In 1836 the number of horses per farm in the Molotschna settlement amounted to 6.2; by 1841 it had increased to 8.4, by 1855 to 10.6.

    During the first decades of the settlement the cultivation of land played a minor role. The land in the immediate neighborhood of the village was usually used for grazing purposes only. Wheat, oats, potatoes, flax and vegetables were raised on distant fields of not more than fourteen to twenty-seven acres per farm. Drought made farming risky. Another handicap was the lack of agricultural machinery.

    The greatest change and influence on the agricultural and economic life came through the Agricultural Association and its chairman, Johann Cornies. After Cornies had demonstrated on his estates what progress could be made in the raising of cattle, horses, sheep and trees, he exercised a tremendous influence on the surrounding Mennonite and non-Mennonite population not only through his example, but also through the Agricultural Association, which was sponsored and supervised by the Guardians' Committee, a government agency. In 1845 he had on two estates 22,000 merinos, and in 1847 his herd of horses on one estate alone numbered five hundred. His sheep, cattle and horses were sought far and near. Through the introduction of the summer fallow, fall plowing, rotation of crops and other means, he demonstrated the successful raising of grain on the steppes. Neither of his estates bore a trace of a tree when Cornies acquired them. By 1845 he had some thirty-five acres of shade trees, about sixteen acres of fruit trees and a large nursery. Thus his estates became an experiment station where the surrounding farmers obtained advice and help and were enabled to improve their stock and farming methods. The Guardians' Committee authorized him to enforce rules and regulations regarding improvements of farming methods and the settlement in general. Under the supervision of the Agricultural Association orchards and shade trees were planted. After twenty years more than five million trees had been planted in the forty-seven villages of the Molotschna. Among the fruit trees grown at this time were grapes and mulberries, the latter for their leaves, which were fed to the silkworms. For a while the silk industry was one of the main sources of income. In 1835 Cornies made it obligatory in the whole Molotschna settlement to summer fallow some land. Simultaneously he introduced the following rotation of crops: summer fallow, barley, wheat and rye. In 1845 this improvement was also introduced in the Chortitza settlement. Very soon the results of the new methods of farming were evidenced by increased yields.

    Cornies exercised great influence among the Mennonites, other colonists and the surrounding Russians, especially the Dukhobors and the Molokans, as well as the native tribes such as Kalmuks, Tatars and others. To all of them he was a friend and adviser, trusted and honored. It has sometimes been said that the Mennonites failed to do mission work among the surrounding population. While this is true of direct evangelism, there is hardly anywhere in the history of the Mennonites an example that exceeds this one in the Ukraine, where the neighboring population was given an opportunity to watch the demonstration of consecrated Christian living, benefiting by the advice and the help given freely out of Christian love.

    By 1860 a complete revolution had taken place in the field of agriculture. The once prospering silk industry and the raising of flax and tobacco gradually disappeared. The breeding of sheep lost its significance and that of cattle also decreased. Around 1850 approximately one-third of the land had been plowed and only one-third of the crops raised was wheat. Now the great wheat revolution was taking place.


    The years around 1860 marked not only a religious but also an economic and agricultural crisis in the history of the Mennonites of Russia. The number of families increased rapidly and it was prohibited to parcel out the normal-sized farm. By 1860 nearly two-thirds of the Molotschna families were landless. These landless had no voice in the village and district assemblies. Theoretically any Mennonite who wished to take up farming was entitled to the legal norm of 175 acres of land as long as there was reserve or surplus land. In practice, however, it was different. The Guardians' Committee required that every applicant for land should possess from one thousand to two thousand rubles in order to start farming on a regular scale because of the notion that all Mennonite farmers had to be "model farmers." This limited the number of those who were able to start to a very few. Besides, the Guardians' Committee had leased the surplus land to the settlement as grazing land for the community flocks and to large-scale sheep ranchers. Cornies favored the distribution of this land among the landless, but after his death the reactionary element among the colonists obtained control of the district offices. Finally in 1866 through an imperial decree, the Guardians' Committee was instructed to grant the right of voting to all homestead-owning colonists regardless of whether they owned farm land or not and to distribute some of the reserve and surplus land in the Molotschna among the landless. By 1869 some 50,000 acres had been distributed to 1,563 families.

    The next step toward the solution of the problem was the creation of a colonization fund. Thus the conflict that had lasted for more than ten years finally resulted in the adoption of a colonization system, subsequently so highly perfected that it could well be called a model system, whereby the younger generations were provided with land on very easy terms. Only because of this could Mennonites establish as many daughter colonies as they did all over the Russian provinces from Ukraine to the Amur River. This again determined the course of the agricultural and economic life and the status of prosperity they attained. Most of the daughter colonies originated through the purchase of land by the mother colonies of Chortitza and Molotschna. The financial resources were obtained by special land taxes, loans made by banks and private individuals and the income from communal land. It is estimated that at the outbreak of World War I, Mennonites of Russia owned about three million acres of land and the total number of Mennonites was over 100,000. As far as the acquisition and distribution of land were concerned, the owners in the mother colonies owned about two-tenths of the total, the large estate owners about three-tenths, while about five-tenths was owned by the owners in the daughter colonies. Some 384 Mennonite large estate owners possessed about one million acres of land, of which a 50,000-acre ranch was the largest.

    After 1860 Russian grain came more and more into demand in western European countries. In the early 1850s the arable land on all average Mennonite farms of the Molotschna settlement had been about sixty acres, while in 1875 it averaged about ninety acres, and in 1888 it amounted to about 120 acres per farm, and the land prices had increased considerably. The expansion of the area of cultivation had now nearly reached its limit. The 175-acre typical Mennonite farm of the Molotschna settlement was used as follows: for house and garden plot six acres, for orchards and other trees about two-and-a-half acres, for pastures and meadows about forty-six acres, and for arable land about 120 acres. A similar expansion of grain farming took place in the Chortitza settlement. In the case of the smaller "half-farm" the situation was different.

    The added land under cultivation was chiefly used for bread grains to an almost total exclusion of forage crops. Simultaneously grain production on these farms became more and more commercialized, that is, an ever-increasing amount of grain was produced for the market instead of home consumption. By 1880 wheat had become the predominant crop. Originally mostly summer wheat was raised by the Mennonites. Gradually hard winter wheat was introduced and soon became prominent. This was the native variety grown along the coast of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. About 1850 the London market began to appreciate the quality of this wheat because of the nutritive content of the flour it produced. A growing demand for this wheat, the concentration of the Mennonites and others on wheat farming, and the opening of ports along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov soon made the Ukraine the granary of Europe. According to H. D. Seymour the ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol near the Molotschna colony shipped the best quality of wheat. Cornelius Jansen stated that the Mennonites of the Molotschna settlement in 1855 produced about half a million bushels of wheat. The hard red winter wheat variety raised by the Mennonites was known under the name Krimka. In America it became known as the Hard Red Turkey variety. It was rust resistant, winter hardy, and very suitable for baking. When the Mennonites coming to Kansas in 1874 brought with them this variety of wheat, Bernhard Warkentin and Mark A. Carlton imported it in larger quantities for seed. Thus the prairie states and provinces became the breadbasket of America as the Ukraine had become the breadbasket of Europe.

    Parallel to the wheat revolution among the Mennonites of Russia went the birth of a Mennonite industry, producing chiefly agricultural machinery. The first foundry was opened by Peter Lepp in 1860 in Chortitza. Before World War I, the eight largest manufacturing plants had a combined sale of more than three million rubles annually. Another result was a rapidly growing milling industry. Outstanding among the millers was Niebuhr and Co. of Alexandrovsk, having an annual sale of three million rubles. A flourishing commerce and trade also resulted from this development.

    Originally the Mennonites used the four-field rotation system, having three-fourths of the land under cultivation with grain and the remainder left for summer fallow, part of which was planted with potatoes, corn, sunflowers, watermelons, etc. A typical crop cycle in Chortitza and Molotschna until the 1860s was as follows: summer fallow; barley; wheat; rye and oats. During the 1870s and 1880s the summer fallow was reduced considerably. One of the common crop cycles now was: summer fallow; winter wheat; barley; spring wheat; rye or oats. At the turn of the century a more balanced system of farming was achieved by putting more acreage under corn, potatoes, watermelons, pumpkins, etc. Hardly any commercial fertilizer was used among the Mennonites. Animal manure, however, was applied on practically every farm.

    Because of the enormous expansion of the crop area during this period, the preparation of the soil did not necessarily improve in spite of the fact that better and more machinery could be obtained direct from Mennonite factories. Instead of plowing the land with a single furrow plow, some large-scale farmers began to use a multiple share or bukker plow. Instead of plowing the land in the fall as had been customary, some began to plow and sow in the spring, using the drill bukker. Such practices were usually temporary and wherever the expansion of the crop area had reached its limit the soil was again worked thoroughly. The summer fallow was worked continually in order to kill all weeds and retain the moisture. The Mennonites used mostly machinery made in their own factories, among them plows, bukkers, harrows, drills, lobogreykas (mowers), threshing machines, etc. During the last decade prior to World War I American binders replaced the lobogreyka. The threshing, which had originally been done with a stone roller, was later done by threshing machines also produced in the Mennonite factories. Many thousands of seasonal workers of surrounding Russian communities found employment in the Mennonite villages.

    With the increased tillage of arable land the breeding of sheep and dairy cattle decreased. Infusions of new blood upon the German Red stock were made. Improvements were obtained through the Wilstermarch strain. The German Red cow became very popular far beyond the Mennonite settlements. It was exported to the Caucasus, Turkestan, Siberia and even Turkey. The Mennonites of the Trakt or Köppental settlement in Samara developed their own breed of dairy cattle, starting with Dutch cattle they had brought from Prussia and crossing them with the German Red Cow of Ukraine and other breeds. They produced the so-called Menno Dutch cattle, with an exceptionally good quality and quantity of milk. After the Russian Revolution these cattle were also introduced into other provinces besides Samara

    The expansion of the cultivated area required an increased supply of draft power, which was furnished during the nineteenth century exclusively by horses. The horses used by the Mennonites were known as the "colonist horse," which was in quality and appearance superior to the common horse. This breed was improved by crossing it with imported Belgian and Dutch sires; carriage horses were improved chiefly by Russian stock. These improvements were first made on the Mennonite estates, whence the horses found their way into the villages.


    The following are the phases of Russian Communism, which destroyed not only Mennonite agriculture in Russia, but also the Mennonite settlements as a whole. The Revolution of 1917 with the Civil War following it, the nationalization of all land, and the subsequent famine of 1921-1922 were only the introduction to the great tragedy. During the New Economic Policy some 25,000 Mennonites took advantage of the opportunity to leave the country and to establish new homes in Canada, while those that remained recuperated somewhat from the first blows and tried to adjust themselves to the new conditions. Improvement of breeds of horses and cattle as well as seed was taken up again and even promoted by the government. The Mennonites were permitted to organize an All-Russian Mennonite Agricultural Association (Allrussischer Mennonitischer Landwirtschaftlicher Verein) with subdivisions, and to publish a magazine Der Praktische Landwirt. But this was only the calm before the storm.

    From 1928 to 1933 collectivization was rigidly introduced with the subsequent liquidation of kulaks. Most of the farmers that had been able to retain some signs of prosperity even in these days were sent to Siberia or the north for slave labor, while those remaining were forced into collectives as a final step of the nationalization of all property and the subjugation of the individual to the state. The All-Mennonite Agricultural Association was liquidated in the summer of 1928, Severe new attacks on the traditional way of life followed in 1936-1938 during the great purge of the Communist party, which reached down into every collective of the remotest settlement. Among the millions of collective farmers sent into exile were many thousands of Mennonites. At the outbreak of World War II, it was a policy of the Soviet government to remove all citizens of German background to Siberia and many of the Mennonite farmers had to give up their homes and villages. Only some 35,000 Mennonites were still in their homes when the German army occupied Ukraine in 1941.

    During the years of 1941 to 1943 the Mennonites were permitted, although under great handicaps, to revive some of their agricultural practices of the past. With the withdrawal of the German army from Ukraine and the removal of the civilian population into the interior of Germany the history of the Mennonite settlements in Russia came to a tragic end. Those Mennonites that remained in Russia and those that were forcibly repatriated by the Russians were scattered mostly in Asiatic Russia in slave labor camps, in mines and in collectives.

    See also Business among the Mennonites of Russia; Industry among the Mennonites of Russia (and Prussia)


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    Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
    Date Published 1955

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    Krahn, Cornelius. "Agriculture among the Mennonites of Russia." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 1 Feb 2023.

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    Krahn, Cornelius. (1955). Agriculture among the Mennonites of Russia. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 February 2023, from


    Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 24-27. All rights reserved.

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