Learning from farmers

Nov 24, 2014 by

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When I applied for a Mennonite Voluntary Service position with the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations office in New York, I had no idea the agricultural roots I got from my Canadian Mennonite farmer grandparents would be so useful.



The MCC U.N. office tries to bring the concerns of North American Mennonites, Brethren in Christ and MCC partner organizations in 60 countries around the world to the policymakers at the U.N. MCC joins with other nongovernmental organizations to form advocacy working groups. As a part of my internship, I coordinate the NGO Working Group on Food and Hunger, which includes about 10 primarily faith-based NGOs advocating on issues of hunger, malnutrition, agriculture and food production.

When the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization approached the NGO Working Group on Food and Hunger to help them understand the problems of small farmers, I knew Mennonite farmers could help. With a few calls to Ken Sensenig, an MCC East Coast colleague who grew up and lives in Lancaster County, Pa., I set up a visit for the director of the FAO liaison office in New York, three FAO colleagues, accompanied by David Weaver, formerly of Church World Service and currently with Global Policy Forum, and myself.

We drove from New York City to Lancaster County and spent two days visiting three Mennonite family farms. Each represented different initiatives to improve sustainability: using only GMO-free feed, cage-free poultry and free-run, grass-fed pigs and sheep. We saw Oregon Dairy, in Lititz, Pa., a large, family-run farm, grocery store and restaurant powered entirely by a methane digester, which filters out the methane from cow manure.

We also visited small Mennonite farms where farmers spoke about the challenges of being a family-run farm in a world dominated by large-scale factory farming and big agri­business corporations. Operating a healthy, sustainable farm is an uphill battle, but as Mennonite farmer Leon Good said, “We can’t just think about profits and the bottom line. What kind of impact is my farming going to have on the world after I die?”

Back at the U.N., the FAO hosted International Day of Rural Women and World Food Day events, both heavily influenced by the trip and interactions with Mennonite farmers. The visit humanized farmers. It highlighted issues farmers around the world face every day and how U.N. policies can help or hurt their work. It also strengthened the relationship between the NGO Working Group on Food and Hunger and the U.N. FAO office.

Immediately after the visit, Vanessa Hershberger, program associate at the MCC U.N. office and MCC’s primary representative on the NGO Working Group on Food and Hunger, was asked to speak on behalf of the Working Group at the U.N. for the International Day of Rural Women.

As Mennonites, we often take our close links to the family farm for granted, not realizing the wisdom, knowledge and experience of our farmers is one of the greatest strengths of our community and a valued resource for the world.

I was pleased to get back to my roots on the farm and share some of the wealth of that tradition with officials at the U.N. My grandparents would have been proud.

Ruth-Anne Seburn is from Winnipeg, Man., and is serving as international advocacy intern at the MCC U.N. office in New York and as coordinator of the NGO Working Group on Food and Hunger as a part of her term with Mennonite Voluntary Service.

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