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A Farming Tragedy

I come from a long line of Mennonite farmers. My ancestors were among those invited to Ukraine by Catherine the Great in the mid-1700s as part of her plan to turn the region into productive agricultural land. She offered them forever incentives, including religious freedom, the right to settle in segregated colonies and govern themselves, and exemption from military service, exactly what they were looking for after years of struggling for this in Germany and Prussia.

Some of my Mennonite forebears after their arrival in Kansas. (Taken around 1910)

They were very successful, expanding their communities as their many children grew up and started their own farms. And then forever ended. In 1871, Czar Alexander II revoked all their rights and privileges. So the Mennonites decided to leave. Whole communities picked up and moved to Canada and the United States, bringing with them their agricultural prowess and a new crop, Turkey Red Wheat, a variety well-suited to the Great Plains.*

Mennonites don’t just grow crops, they grow more farmers. So they’re always in need of more land to farm. And now all that growing is causing a growing problem. For one group of Mennonites in Mexico, their success is destroying the environment they rely on to continue their way of life. It’s the definition of a tragedy, where one’s greatest strength becomes one’s greatest weakness.

Mennonites and the Maya Forest

Mennonites in Campeche, Mexico. Photo by Milei.Vencel, Hungary via Wikimedia commons.

In the 1980s, the Mexican government saw Mennonites as attractive settlers and sold land to them at low prices in hopes of expanding corn cultivation. In the early 2000s, in an effort to reduce livestock feed imports from the U.S., the Mexican government encouraged farmers to grow more soybeans, providing subsidies to farmers and opening the country to genetically modified soybeans and the use of glyphosate (Roundup) that went with that. The Mennonite colonies in Campeche on the Yucatan peninsula were more than happy to convert to this new crop. And, in spite of shunning modern amenities and cars at home, their farming work evolved to include bulldozers, chainsaws, tractors and harvesting equipment.

Of course, they’ve been wildly successful. The 10,000 Mennonites living in a dozen colonies in the Campeche area now produce 90% of the soybeans grown in Mexico. The leader of one colony, Ernesto Friessen Voth (no relation), produces 10,000 tons of soybeans annually, all for export to Asia as feed for pigs. Even better, since they live a simple life, the only thing they spend their money on is farm expansion and the equipment to grow and harvest more.

Example of a cleared area. Photo courtesy of Bacalar News.

And that’s the problem. Their expansion is coming at the expense of the Maya Forest, the second largest rainforest after the Amazon. Today, over one-fifth of the Maya, an area equivalent to the state of Massachusetts, has been cleared by the colonies. This has severely impacted the plants, wildlife, and the people who have lived there for centuries. But there’s another problem. By clearing as much forest as they have, the farmers have changed the climate.

Less forest has resulted in less rainfall capture in the soil, leading to a drop in moisture uptake in the air and a decrease in rainfall in the area. Farmers used to plant in May, but now often have to wait until July. Their growing season is shorter and thus their ability to grow soybean is reduced. Their tunnel vision about what it means to be a good farmer is leading to their downfall.

With the change in climate, extreme weather events are disrupting farming as well. In 2019, an unusual rain even flooded the area. Without the natural forest system to capture and slow the water, this Mennonite field remained flooded for more than three months. Photo courtesy of Mexican Daily Post.

What Can Be Done?

The problem that the Mennonites of Campeche are facing is one we’re all becoming familiar with in our own regions. The evidence of a changing climate is all around us now in the form of rising temperatures and more extreme weather events. But what can we do?

“The most intractable problem today,” Margaret Mead said, “is not pollution or technology or war, but the lack of belief that the future is very much in the hands of the individual.”

Agriculture is not the problem, but it can be a big part of the solution. So, this month I’m focusing on what we can do. I’ll describe some of the challenges we face, share practices you can implement now to make a difference, and show you what others are doing all over the world to help.

The future is in our hands.

Thanks for reading!

Kathy

*Some say that the story about Turkey Red Wheat is a myth. You can read more here.

More news about Mennonites in Campeche is available here, in this article from Yucatan Times, and this one from the National Geographic.

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