COLUMBIA, Mo. — Research from the University of Missouri has found that agricultural professionals such as conservation agents, when working with Plain (Amish and conservative Mennonite) communities, face challenges as well as opportunities on issues relating to conservation and pollution. Through interviews with agricultural professionals and Amish farmers, researchers have identified several factors that are vital for improving coordination between the two. Relationship building and discussions between communities about conservation practices, as well as paying greater attention to differences between various Plain communities, can encourage greater and more effective participation in conservation efforts among Plain communities.
“Those in Amish communities see the person, not the organization,” said Caroline Brock, an assistant teaching professor in the Division of Applied Social Sciences at MU. “Some agents have made a lot of headway, as Plain producers can be very open to information and ideas. However, turnover in professional organizations becomes a challenge because new people have to start from the beginning to build relationships. That’s why it’s important to encourage and develop other methods of communication. Amish communities are actually very receptive to mailings, and word of mouth is an important tool for spreading ideas across these communities.”
Brock interviewed 23 Amish farmers in Indiana and 18 public-sector agricultural professionals from a variety of areas with large Amish and Mennonite populations. In analyzing the responses, Brock and her colleagues found that there are unique challenges in communicating with Amish communities, which generally choose to forego regular access to the Internet and may rely primarily on horse-drawn transportation, making it challenging to attend regional meetings. The Anabaptist faith, to which Amish and Mennonites belong, has a history of bearing the brunt of government-sanctioned persecution, and these communities are often hesitant to accept assistance or collaboration from governments, Brock said.
For example, state and federal cost-share programs, which help defray costs associated with conservation practices, are generally not utilized by the Amish. Extension agents who are employed by universities may have more freedom to pursue alternative programs. The Amish farmers interviewed did not appear to associate publicly funded universities with the government, suggesting extension agents have an opportunity to work more closely with Amish communities.
Perhaps the biggest riddle for agricultural professionals to navigate as they work with Plain producers, however, is the variety of beliefs and preferences across Anabaptist communities.
“Community norms and beliefs are hyperlocal and diverse,” Brock said. “Conservation and extension agents need to be flexible and understand that one community might restrict something another community embraces. For example, some communities allow portable solar electric fences to manage grazing and others don’t. Going forward, we need resources for documenting this diversity and creating a network for information sharing among professionals.”
Brock said it is also important to realize that Plain communities have their own stewardship ethics and may be concerned about different conservation issues than the professionals. For example, interviews revealed that Amish farmers were concerned about the use of chemicals on human health. They were also practicing the conservation technique of cover cropping more than their non-Amish neighbors. Relationship building and tailoring messages to the concerns of individual communities could be an effective bridge-building strategy, according to Brock.
The study, “Bridging the divide: challenges and opportunities for public sector agricultural professionals working with Amish and Mennonite producers on conservation,” was published in Environmental Management. Other researchers involved in the study were Jessica Ulrich-Schad of South Dakota State University and Linda Prokopy of Purdue University. The Division of Applied Social Sciences is located in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
— University of Missouri