How conservation pros can engage Amish and Mennonite communities

Researchers have identified several factors that can improve coordination between Plain (the Amish and conservative Mennonite) communities and agricultural professionals such as conservation agents.

The researchers found that agricultural professionals face challenges as well as opportunities on issues relating to conservation and pollution when working with Amish and conservative Mennonite communities.

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, the researchers found.

“Those in Amish communities see the person, not the organization. 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,” says Caroline Brock, an assistant teaching professor in the division of applied social sciences at the University of Missouri.

“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.”

For the paper, which appears in Environmental Management, Brock interviewed 23 Amish farmers in Indiana and 18 public-sector agricultural professionals from a variety of areas with large Amish and Mennonite populations.

The findings reveal 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 a challenge 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 says.

For example, the Amish don’t generally use state and federal cost-share programs, which help defray costs associated with conservation practices.

Extension agents employed by universities may have more freedom to pursue alternative programs, but the Amish farmers the researchers interviewed did not appear to link publicly funded universities with the government.

Perhaps the biggest situation agricultural professionals need 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 says. “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.”

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Brock says it’s 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 and 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, Brock says.

Researchers from South Dakota State University and Purdue University are coauthors of the study.

Source: University of Missouri