Transnational Flows of Agriculture


I PROGRAM OVERVIEW: The history of agriculture focuses on ways of intervening in nature to coax soil, sun and water to produce food. Most often this enquiry dwells on farming “methods”, changes in technology, markets and labour pools.  But farming is also about knowledge, and knowledge relates easily to power, social capital, influence and ideas of what is credible and what is not.

The TFOAK program, funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant, is a multi-year endeavour to study the history of Canadian Mennonite agriculture through a transnational lens.  Specifically, TFOAK considers agriculture as a form of knowledge linked to a global discourse. It studies the way an evolving set of knowledges imported into and exported out of Canada shaped farming practices over the course of the twentieth century.  It examines first, knowledges brought to Canada by Mennonite settlers from Russia in the 1870s to the 1920s, and how they changed through interactions with government agents, as well as with other settlers and even with Indigenous neighbours.  Second, it looks at how the children and grandchildren of those settlers, often equipped with formal education based on internationally engaged scientific curricula, exported these knowledges to the Global South. Third, it seeks to understand how the children and grandchildren imported new knowledges – both chemical-based agriculture promoted by multi-national corporations as well as organic agriculture propelled by the international organic movement – into Canada.

A focus on Mennonites is key to this study, and for several reasons.  First, over the centuries the Mennonites have been a disproportionately rural people.  Second, they have generated a significant body of primary farm accounts, including diaries, memoirs, letters to newspapers and magazines.  Third, they have significant rural presence as settlers in six of Canada’s ten provinces, from Ontario to BC.  Fourth, in the last century they have become a global people, with significant presence in southeast and southern Asia, Latin America and southern and central Africa.  Fifth, they have a robust record of creating development and food aid programs in the Global South.  

At the foundation of TFOAK is a series of intense local studies. In Canada it focuses on the transnational linkages of eight specific Mennonite settler communities – Vineland and Leamington (Ontario), Steinbach and Winkler (Manitoba), Hague/Osler and Rosthern (Saskatchewan), Tabor (Alberta) and Yarrow (British Columbia).  In the Global South it researches the interactions of trained agronomists and rural development workers from these Canadian communities with local farmers and state agents in selected communities in four countries – Bangladesh, Bolivia, Indonesia and Kenya. 


II KNOWLEDGE MOBILIZATION PLAN: This program of research aims for a broad record of knowledge mobilization that reaches both academic audiences and the wider public.  1) Research Associates write and present full length research papers: three RA’s presented at the “MCC at 100 Conference” held at the University of Winnipeg in October 2021; others will present at the Mennonites and Latin America conference in October 2022 and the Russlaender Centenary Conference slated for October 2023, both hosted by CTMS.  2) Most of these papers will be submitted for publication in Journal of Mennonite Studies.  3) RA’s are encouraged to use their research materials in any other publications, academic or popular, as well as for theses, academic papers, etc. 4) The Principal Investigator will write a monograph titled, “Transnational Flows of Agricultural Knowledge,” with chapters on: a) settler transplantations in Canada; b) mid-century agricultural chemicalization; c) Global South initiatives; d) the transnational GMO embrace; e) neo-organic agriculture; f) gender, power and farm knowledge; it will be submitted to a reputable university press.  5) Potential chapters of this book will be presented at annual conferences hosted by the Canadian Historical Association, the U.S. Rural History Association, the Social Sciences and History Association, the European and the U.S. Environmental History Association. 6) Three collaborators in this program of study – Dr. Janis Thiessen, Dr. Ruth Rempel and Dr. Martin Entz – have provided invaluable counsel along the way. 7) All research materials will be deposited at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg.


This multifaceted program of study relies on a team of undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students trained in the skills of agricultural history, transnational history and oral history.  Twelve research associates have or are working on the project, and meet semi-monthly as a TFOAK team via zoom meetings.  The current team includes: 1) Marta Bunnett-Wiebe, BA University of Winnipeg, analysing MCC field reports in the Global South; 2) Geovanna Carreno, PhD Wageningen University, Netherlands, stationed in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, undertaking oral history with farmers linked to MCC; 3) Iqbal Chowdry, PhD student in Sociology, Dalhousie University, oral history with farmers linked to IDE and MCC in Bangladesh; 4) Shelisa Klassen,  PhD student, University of Manitoba, researching in family histories, English language newspapers, corporate records in Canada, etc; 5) Jodey Nurse, PhD, agricultural history, University of Guelph, consultant to the team and researching in organic agriculture in Canada; 6) Katherine Stanley, manager, University of Manitoba Natural Systems Agriculture, researching Canadian agricultural college curricula; 7) Christopher Sundby. MA student, Regent College, Vancouver, pursuing oral history with retired MCC agronomists; 8) Jeremy Wiebe, PhD studies in Canadian Mennonite history, currently with the Plett Foundation, serving as consultant and tech support.  Three under-graduate University of Winnipeg students – Dylan Friesen, Danica Geddert and Keziah Toews – researched English language newspapers in the summer of 2020, while Marianna Fast, a recent graduate, completed her research on the Mennonitsche Rundschau and Der Bote earlier in 2021.



This multifaceted program of study will contribute directly to two of the six SSHRC challenge areas, specifically in national resource management and in considering Canada’s role as a global citizen in an interconnected wider world.

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This webinar will explore how Mennonites have historically addressed the spiritual, social, and economic implications of alcohol production, consumption, and sales in their communities...

December 9th, 2021

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