Farming Among Mennonites in France
Until the 20th century, the Mennonite congregations of France have been exclusively agricultural. None of the urban congregations dating from the Reformation survived into modern times, with the result that the character of 20th century Mennonite society was determined almost exclusively by successive immigrations of farmers, weavers, and millers from Switzerland.
Mennonites seem to have introduced some new drainage methods into the region of Ste-Marie-aux-Mines, according to the writer of "Promenades Helvetiques, Alsaciennes" (under article Alsace). Since in this mountainous area subsoil or tile drainage is out of the question, the reference is probably to the system, still in general use, of draining hillside pasture land by means of small surface ditches cut in the sod. The historical sources from other areas mention no special farming methods, but testify to a general reputation for honesty and hard work, and to a tendency to raise more livestock than other farmers.
This reputation for honesty permitted Mennonites to obtain leases on the best farms, which belonged generally to the nobility. The nobles would even rent to the lower bidder, if a Mennonite, because of their confidence in his industry and honesty. The Mennonites thus attained a favored position in comparison with the local peasant population, whose holdings were less profitable to farm. This privileged position, supported as it was by the unpopular nobility, led to a general dislike of Mennonites in some of these areas where they were most numerous (Montbéliard, Ste-Marie).
The industry and prosperity of Mennonites led in turn to a popular tradition according to which they had special gifts or farming secrets. This reputation led one Jacques Klopfenstein to publish at Belfort, beginning in 1812, a farmer's almanac entitled The Anabaptist or the Experienced Farmer (L'Anabaptiste ou le Cultivateur par Experience). Of Klopfenstein nothing is known, though he was certainly of Mennonite origin. The idea of an almanac profiting from the Anabaptist reputation was followed by other publishers in Montbéliard and Nancy, although it is doubtful that Mennonites actually contributed anything to the editing.
The general pattern of Mennonite agriculture in history shows a steady rise in social and economic standing. Beginning on unwanted lands a refuge from persecution, Mennonite farmers came to hold, first as tenants and then sometimes as owners, some of the best land, especially those farms which being isolated from the villages, gave more social and religious freedom and more incentive for individual enterprise. Mennonites (counting only those families which maintain some degree of church connection) at the time of the mid-1950s operated perhaps 300 farms in Eastern France, of which one fourth were in southern Alsace, one fourth in the Belfort-Montbeliard area, and the remainder scattered farther north and west, especially in Lorraine (see maps, including map in Mennonite Life, July, 1952). The average size of Mennonite farms in the Territoire de Beifort, the only area where figures have been worked out, is about 50 acres, compared to an over-all average of 17 acres (it is to be borne in mind that many of the non-Mennonites whose holdings contribute to this low average combine their farming with factory work). This relationship may be assumed to hold as well in other parts of France, with the exact figures varying considerably with regional differences. In southern Alsace, where 52 per cent of all farms are smaller than 12 acres, the comparison would be still more striking. The average size of the Mennonite farms would further rise, to a degree incommensurate with the general pattern, in those areas where an especially large estate is operated by a Mennonite (Schweighof near Altkirch, Schopenwihr near Colmar, Schafbusch near Wissembourg, l'Epina near Verdun, Votrom-bois near Revigny, the Kennel farm at Ligny-en-Barrois).
On the other hand the percentage of Mennonites who owned their own farms was noticeably lower than among non-Mennonites. Historically this had its origin in the period of persecution, when the changing political climate forced Mennonites to remain mobile and invest in livestock rather than land. After persecution ceased, a sort of conscientious scruple against buying land persisted until the early 20th century, growing out of the "stranger and pilgrim" attitude with which the New Testament itself regards worldly security. This greater mobility was one of the factors which facilitated the 19th-century migrations of Amish Mennonites to America. There are however also material reasons for not acquiring farms. The larger estates, which Mennonites tended to seek out, belonged to noble or bourgeois families who had little intention of selling, but who were happy to have their land farmed, if possible by the same family for several generations, by Mennonites. In addition, modern price and tax relationships made it more profitable for the tenant farmer on a large farm to invest in machinery than to attempt to acquire land.
Contrary to the pattern in some pioneer countries, Mennonites could not seek out the most fertile lands when arriving in France. The most fertile areas, Kochersberg in Alsace, and Xantois and Vermois in Lorraine, had practically no Mennonites, because the fertility had encouraged, before the arrival of Mennonites, the formation of a village-centered peasant-ownership structure which left no room for newcomers.
Parallel to the rise in economic and social standing of Mennonites, there can be observed a sloughing-off tendency resulting in the re-absorption of certain elements by village society and the mass (Catholic) Church. Mennonites unable to obtain larger farms, for reasons of land scarcity or limited management capacity, migrated to America, moved into areas where there was no organized congregation, or else gradually abandoned their Mennonite relationships, often through mixed marriage, in favor of integration in the surrounding society, in such a way as to maintain the pattern according to which Mennonites farmed some of the best land and most of the isolated farms.
Except for woodcutting around Normanvillars, and flour-milling in a few Alsatian families, Mennonites generally carried on the same type of diversified agriculture as their neighbors. In modern times they were among the first to adopt machinery, new crops, and scientific methods. Some were authorized to produce seed grains under government control or to test new varieties on an experimental basis.
Crops in Alsace and the Montbeliard-Belfort area in the mid-1950s were wheat, oats, barley, corn (chiefly for green fodder and ensilage, the growing season barely permitting the grain to ripen), forage beets, potatoes, tobacco (in the plains around Colmar), rape (for oil), hay, and orchard fruits. Livestock was also diversified, with dairying (multipurpose cattle also fattened for beef), hogs, poultry, and rabbits. In Lorraine, where the soil does not permit use of the more demanding crops, farms were larger but devoted more largely to grazing of sheep or cattle and to small grains.
Correll, Ernst. "Master farmers of France." Mennonite Life (April 1952): 61.
Michiels, Alfred. Les Anabaptistes des Vosges. Paris, 1860.
Pezay, A. J. M. de. Les Soiree's Helvetiennes, Alsaciennes, et Fran-Comtoises. Amsterdam and Paris, 1772.
Sleeswijk, C. Wegener and A. Doornbosch. "De Mennonieten in Frankrijk" Unpublished thesis, Amsterdam, 1951.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 306-307. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Yoder, John Howard. "Farming Among Mennonites in France." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 25 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/farming_among_mennonites_in_france.
APA style: Yoder, John Howard. (1956). Farming Among Mennonites in France. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/farming_among_mennonites_in_france.