Farming Among Mennonites in North America

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This article was written in the 1950s; read it in that context.

Nowhere in the world has rural life changed more rapidly and more drastically than in the United States. These radical changes are commonly referred to as the revolution in rural life. The changes have not been confined to technological areas, such as the tractor replacing the horse; the automobile, the buggy; and electricity replacing kerosene. The changes have altered the general structure. They have affected birth and death rates, population shifts, cultural patterns, and have even significantly altered religious and social values. American Mennonites, who have so predominantly an agricultural heritage, have been visibly affected by this revolution in American agriculture. With the exception of the Old Order Amish and the Old Colony Mennonites, North American Mennonites have, in principle, completely accepted the technological and scientific methods of farming. Only economic limitations seem to have prevented them from using the latest scientific methods and modern mechanisms. At a slower rate and somewhat less obvious, the impact of the agricultural revolution has been felt on the religious and social values and the cultural patterns of the Mennonites.

There are several factors in the history of Mennonites which explain their devotion to agriculture. Because of persecution many became pioneers in agriculture. Due to their emphasis on the virtues of thrift, diligence, frugality, and humility, they, in the course of time, learned to earn a living on the poorest soils where persecution often drove them. They learned to drain swamps, to improve the fertility of poor soil, and experiment with new ways of farming until, in the course of centuries, they developed both skills and a reputation as expert farmers. These aspects of the Mennonite heritage developed in them a deep-seated tradition as farmers. This tradition, plus their desire to perpetuate themselves as a peculiar people, resulted in church regulations which often prohibited residence in towns and cities and encouraged the pursuit of farming as a vocation or occupation closely related to farming. While the old prohibitions have been lifted everywhere with the exception of the most conservative American Mennonite groups, farming was still predominantly preferred as the occupation, about 80 per cent of the largest group being farmers in the 1950s. Thus we find American Mennonites scattered over the states and provinces of North America in compact settlements in the best farm lands. Many of these agricultural areas were developed out of raw prairie lands and others were improved after purchasing them from earlier settlers who had abandoned them in search of richer soils or other occupations. The largest numbers of Mennonites in the mid-1950s were found in the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kansas with smaller distributions in 29 other states. Others were scattered in Canada throughout the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. In both Canada and the United States, the Mennonite settlements followed the general pattern of a westward movement, from Ontario to British Columbia in Canada, and from Pennsylvania to the Pacific Coast in the United States.

Mennonites made a number of significant contributions to American agriculture. Perhaps the most outstanding contribution was the general one of having developed prosperous agricultural communities composed of a large number of individually owned family-farm size units. If the key to a stable civilization is the stable family, Mennonites contributed significantly because of their large families and their well-organized community life centered around the church. A more specific contribution of the American Mennonite group was the introduction, cultivation, and processing of hard winter Red Turkey wheat, which was brought from Russia to the plains states especially centered in Kansas and Oklahoma in 1874. This contribution has been widely recognized as a distinctive gift of the Mennonites and has been accepted as the one factor making Kansas the "bread basket" of America. It is not without significance that the Mennonites who migrated from Russia to America in the 1870s were successful wheat growers in Southern Russia, having produced as much as one-half million bushels of wheat as early as 1855. The hard winter wheat, introduced in the late 19th century, has now been generally accepted as the most preferable wheat for milling purposes. From it have been developed a number of other varieties of wheat.

A second significant contribution of the American Mennonites stemmed from the Swiss Mennonites. It was the method of farming by means of a systematic rotation of crops. By this means it was possible to preserve soil fertility by means of natural processes. The rotation consisted of a three-, four-, or five-crop cycle. The cycle began with a legume crop such as clover or alfalfa, followed by corn, oats, and wheat. This natural method of maintaining fertility was also supplemented by the use of domestic and commercialized fertilizers. Common barnyard manure has long been considered by Mennonite farmers as a highly valuable soil builder. Perception of its value was one incentive to a cattle-feeding program which, in turn, produced additional quantities of manure and provided meat supplies and dairy products, both marketable, cash commodities. Pennsylvania Mennonites showed a preference for locating on limestone soils. They earlier discovered the profitable use of burnt lime as a valuable fertilizer. By the 1950s commercial brands of fertilizers were used in addition to lime and manure. Thus Mennonites have had a reputation of being good farmers because they preserved the productive capacity of their soils for centuries on end. This is one reason why farms were kept in single families for as many as six or seven generations. The improvements of the fathers were handed on to the sons generation after generation.

A significant Mennonite contribution was the practice of various forms of mutual aid. This was a rural virtue, formerly very widely practiced, and still common in Mennonite agricultural areas. It is especially dramatized in the Amish communities where insurance is taboo and where, if destruction to buildings is incurred as a result of accident, the whole community, consisting of as many as several hundred people, will rally to the festive occasion of reconstructing the destroyed buildings. Thus Amish farmers experience the cheapest possible type of insurance and yet the best because it is a voluntary assistance. In less conservative groups there are numerous mutual aid societies for the rendering of various functions. Within the United States and Canada in the mid-1950s there were at least 60 Mennonite mutual insurance societies, most of them covering risks incurred from fire and storms. These were all based on a simple assessment plan of mutually sharing the costs of the losses. Much informal mutual aid was still practiced in farming communities where farmers exchanged work, share machinery, plow or harvest fields for neighbors who were incapacitated, and in some cases, even extended financial assistance.

An interesting contradiction among American Mennonite agricultural practices in the 1950s was the custom of raising tobacco. American Mennonites generally came to discourage the use of tobacco. Nevertheless, among the Amish and some Mennonite groups in eastern Pennsylvania, large quantities of tobacco were still grown in the 20th century. The county of Lancaster in Pennsylvania was among the most highly productive farming areas in the entire country, and it was in this county that more Mennonites resided than in any other in America. In the decade of the 1950s, this county was the leading tobacco producer in the country and Mennonites and Amish were among the largest producers in that county. This is explained in part by the highly profitable nature of the crop and because it provided work during the winter months for the farm family. Many young farmers got their start by sharecropping several acres of tobacco in order to put up a cash reserve.

The following significant trends may be noted in Mennonite agricultural communities. Mennonite farmers have been generally prosperous. They have adopted the latest methods of farming, but interestingly, very few Mennonite farmers of the mid-20th century had formal training in agricultural schools or colleges. Their skills were acquired through home training and practice. Increasing numbers of Mennonites joined farmers' cooperative organizations for the purpose of benefiting through corporate action in producing, buying, and marketing of their crops and necessities. There has been a trend in the more populated sections toward a declining size in farms and a more intensive agriculture characterized by specialization in farming, although preserving a large element of self-sufficiency and family-type enterprise. In the prairie states especially, there has been a noticeable trend in the direction of larger farms and operating units. This is accounted for in large measure by the increasing acreages that can be operated by modern machinery and by the high capitalization which must be offset by a greater volume of production. In some areas, there was a noticeable concentration of wealth in the hands of a few with the development of a landless or renter class of those who could not establish themselves on farms of their own.

A peculiar problem confronting many Mennonite farmers was the question of cooperating with the government in various agricultural practices. The traditional opposition to participating in government was still contended for in theory but with the United States government becoming increasingly a welfare state, it was more difficult to maintain this sharp line of separation. Such governmental agencies as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, with its subsidy payments for reduced crop acreages, found most Mennonite farmers cooperating. Many borrowed money through the Farm Commodity Administration and the Commodity Credit Corporation. Participation in the federal crop insurance and Rural Electrification Administration programs, further involved Mennonite farmers with aspects of a government program. Amish farmers who resisted mechanization and electrification and frequently refused AAA subsidies maintained a clearer witness than other Mennonites in this respect. Even many of them accepted some parts of the government program. It appears that Mennonites will continue to cooperate rather than withdraw from government cooperation.

Since about 1930, there has been a growing self-consciousness among American Mennonite farmers. From colonial days until the 20th cnetury, Mennonites took farming very much for granted. Even during the heavy population shift from rural to urban areas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mennonites resisted the trend although they were by no means unaffected by it. During this urbanward shift, farming came to be looked upon as among the less preferred occupations. Urban people, including the lowliest laboring men, tended to feel higher in social rank than the farmer. In the course of time, farmers came to sense this stigma and developed something of an inferiority complex. This general feeling was accompanied by difficult and unpredictable economic circumstances. After 1940, about the beginning of World War II, the economic lot of the farmer improved and so did his social rank. At the same time there was a new effort to interpret the values of the rural community to rural people. Newly established magazines such as Mennonite Life and Christian Living along with articles in church organs and independent journals such as the Mennonite Weekly Review, did much to interpret agriculture in a new light to urban and rural Mennonites alike. It appeared in the 1950s that the future would see American Mennonites clinging strongly to the land and maintaining their age-old tradition as agriculturalists.


Landis, Ira D. "Mennonite Agriculture in Colonial Lancaster Co., Pa." Mennonite Quarterly Review 19 (October 1945): 254-272.

Author(s) J. Winfield Fretz
Date Published 1956

Cite This Article

MLA style

Fretz, J. Winfield. "Farming Among Mennonites in North America." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 20 May 2022.

APA style

Fretz, J. Winfield. (1956). Farming Among Mennonites in North America. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 307-309. All rights reserved.

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