By Mark Gleason
Extension Plant Pathologist
Iowa State University
Many Iowans are surprised to learn that Amish and Mennonite farmers are a rapidly growing segment of Iowa agriculture. For example, about 125 Amish and Mennonite farm families have settled in northeast Iowa during the past 15 years, with more on the way. Immigration is also occurring in the southeastern part of the state.
Who are these people? Technically, the Amish are an offshoot of the Mennonites, and the Mennonites themselves are one sect of a large collection of Christian religious conservative groups known as Anabaptists. Founded in Europe during the Reformation of the 16th century, the Anabaptists believed in being strict disciples of Christ, and in emulating Christ’s purity in everyday life. They fled persecution in Germany, and many settled as farmers from Pennsylvania westward to Iowa.
So Amish and Mennonites are certainly not new to Iowa.But many have moved here in recent years, as skyrocketing land prices in Pennsylvania and Ohio put farming out of the financial reach of young farmers in those states.
Many Amish and Mennonite communities, in Iowa and elsewhere, include a gradation of practices and beliefs. The Amish and the Old Order Mennonites are somewhat similar in wearing modest clothes, typically in dark colors, and seek to avoid any displays of vanity. Most do not have motor vehicles, electricity or telephones, and most families are engaged in farming.
Conservative Mennonites, on the other hand, still dress modestly, including bonnets and skirts for women, but can wear colors freely. Many families have electricity and own motor vehicles, but limit access to video games, movies or high-speed Internet. Most are still connected to agricultural industries in some way, often as retailers of Mennonite products.
Contemporary Mennonites are difficult to distinguish from typical Americans in dress, use of technology, or access to higher education. But the Amish and all three Mennonite groups are united by shared spiritual beliefs, including rejection of all forms of violence.
Where does Iowa State University Extension fit into this picture? Recently, many Amish and Mennonite farmers in Iowa have been diversifying into high-value horticultural crops, especially vegetables, fruit, and greenhouse crops. Their goal is to increase the profitability of their typically small-acreage farms. They have also branched out into marketing more of their own produce, even building their own produce auction houses.
Shifting to high-value crops means a steep learning curve, since these crops demand more intensive management than corn, soybeans and forages. Managing pests and diseases, marketing the crops and finding the best balance among the new crops poses some daunting challenges.
ISU Extension area and county staff have been aiding Amish and Mennonite growers for many years. But the recent rapid shift to new crops, combined with the limited access of many of these growers to modern communication technology, meant that some new educational approaches were needed.
In 2004, a group of ISU Extension faculty, area specialists and county extension directors hatched a plan to deliver a concentrated series of field days and workshops during 2005-2006. Backed by a grant from the North Central Risk Management Education Center, the group is focusing on the major centers of Amish and Mennonite growers in eastern Iowa.
This summer, we held well-attended field days near Orchard (in Osage County in northeast Iowa), Frytown (15 miles southeast of Iowa City) and Bloomfield (in southeast Iowa). Participants walked through pest, disease nutritional, and horticultural trouble-shooting exercises in the fields and greenhouses of the host farmers. The discussions were lively, and the Amish and Mennonite growers had plenty of questions and insights to share.
During the late fall and winter, the ISU Extension team will hold eight day-long workshops at the three Amish/Mennonite produce auction houses in eastern Iowa. The workshops will go into depth on strategies for management of wood-heated greenhouses, nutrient management in pot crops, managing pests and diseases, practicing safe pesticide handling and blending a wide range of crops in a successful farm management plan.
The project team will develop some long-term educational products, too. All the workshop attendees will receive resource notebooks packed with the latest extension bulletins and web guides for all relevant crops and management technologies. In addition, we will add guidebooks and other reference works for small-scale growers of high-value crops to the reference shelves of nine county ISU Extension county offices in eastern Iowa.
The workshops are free of charge and open to the public. For information on the workshop schedule, which will be finalized in September, contact Mark Gleason at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (515) 294-0579.