A young alumnus returns to the family farm hoping to learn from the prairie while feeding his human community.
Bethel's Thresher mascot is named for the horse-drawn wheat harvesting device that early Russian Mennonite settlers used — the same immigrants who first brought winter wheat to the Great Plains in 1874. The many, mostly modest, gifts of farmers like these raised the Administration Building and with it Bethel College, beginning in 1887.
In addition, Bethel has incorporated the threshing stone into its legacy symbol. Designer Ken Hiebert '53 says:
... the threshing stone is a humble reminder... of the sorting process that is education... Threshers are thus not just playing volleyball or running the relay; they are scientists, musicians, poets, nurses, social workers — in short, persons of any discipline — each bringing a powerful value system to bear on their professional development.... The threshing stone honors our legacy and reminds us of the key qualities that shape leadership — moral, spiritual and professional.
In 2011, Jason Schmidt, a Bethel graduate and a descendant of Russian Mennonite immigrant farmers, moved to his family's farm in rural Whitewater with his wife, Carol Longenecker. Jason's vision is to develop and use farming methods modeled on the prairie ecosystem. This article comes from a meditation Jason gave for Earth Day 2012 at Bethel College Mennonite Church.
Mennonites are good at feeding people. If you have ever attended a Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale, there should be no doubt in your mind about this. We take quite literally the call Jesus gave Peter to
feed my sheep.
Throughout my life, I have woven together this love of feeding people with another love I developed as a young kid — love of nature. Growing up as a farm kid in south central Kansas, I was given ample time to explore the natural world around me. My perfect afternoon as a child was to head out with the family dog down to the creek to explore and catch all sorts of bugs, frogs, snakes, turtles and fish. Not to be irreverent, but when I was a boy, my Audubon field guides were probably more sacred to me than my Bible.
As I grew older and moved away from my Kansas prairies, I was able to nurture my love of feeding and helping people. Through years in [voluntary service], I had numerous opportunities to cultivate the Mennonite value of service.
During a year in South Africa, I had a major revelation that helped me tie together my love of nature and service. I realized the health of the land and the health of the people who live on the land are integrally connected.
Living in Eastern Cape Province and helping with small agriculture projects, I learned that poverty frequently causes humans to abuse the land, which in turn breeds more poverty and ill-health due to degraded natural resources. In the small rural village in which I lived, the native forests were rapidly being cut down due to the need for cooking and heating fuel in the poor communities. The denuded hillsides were then overgrazed, leading to erosion and pollution of streams used for drinking water. So the cyclical degradation of both human communities and natural resources continued.
Of course, the opposite is also true: If we care for our land and seek to live in balance with the natural ecosystems that sustain us, we are preserving the health of our communities now and for future generations. I believe it is possible both to feed our neighbors and sustain our natural resource.
Tying together ecological conservation and feeding people is not an inherent value for Mennonites or other Christians. As Anabaptist theologian Thomas Finger writes:
Despite Mennonites' long history as agricultural people and close existence with the natural world, no theological doctrine on nature or creation has arisen. However, I believe it is not too far of a stretch to extend our commitment to peace and social justice to include all of creation.
As a farmer, I understand the enormous improvements in agriculture productivity, but I think we also need to humbly admit that agriculture is responsible for countless environmental disasters. Replacing complex and stable ecosystems — such as the grasslands of the Great Plains — with monoculture cropping systems has left bare soils vulnerable to the elements, which led to disasters like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s that followed our ancestors ripping up the prairie sod.
Modern agriculture has made improvements to reduce the deleterious effects of our unnatural cropping systems and feedlot operations. But in general, modern agriculture still has not figured out how to feed people without degrading or destroying ecosystems.
So I have returned to my family's farm to try to figure out how to love and respect the natural prairie ecosystem while also feeding my human community. Rather than trying to break the natural world for our own progress, I believe we need to begin looking towards nature as the model for our sustenance.
I now am asking:
What was the ecological model of my native Kansas before my European ancestors busted the prairie sod? The prairies were a sea of deep-rooted native grasses and forbs that supported a teaming diversity of life. If I look at nature as my model, in Kansas I should be a grass farmer using my cattle and sheep like the great herds of bison to harvest the grass. And with wise and efficient management, my animals can feed my human community with nutritious flesh and milk, while still sustaining and protecting my ecological community.
Thus, I have found a way to live out what I believe are two Mennonite — two Christian — values: feeding people and caring for creation.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God,... is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? — Ezekiel 34:17-18
There is as yet no ethic dealing with [human] relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.... Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, however, has not yet affirmed their belief.... Animal instincts are modes of guidance for the individual in meeting such situations. Ethics are possibly a kind of community instinct in-the-making. — Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)