I have been in and out of Mennonite colonies over the years that Kathy and I lived in Bolivia but never to the extent that I have been now, these few months. The number of colonies has pretty much doubled since our last assignment here, as has, perhaps, the variation among them in terms of which beliefs and ways of living are most important to them. There are ingredients of lifestyle among the more traditional Colonies – about 80% or so of the 100,000 here – that are pretty constant, but cheese making seems pretty much a given. I don’t know of a traditional Mennonite colony where there isn’t a cheese factory or two … or more. Each family is allotted an amount of land to purchase, sometimes 25 ha. or up to 50 ha. depending on the total the colony was able to buy, I believe … and it’s almost as if each family is also assumed to have a few cows for shipping milk to the cheese factory down the road. Sometimes up to 20 or 30 cows, but I haven’t heard of numbers much beyond that. It tends to be the work of the women to feed and milk the cows. The men provide the feed and the infrastructure and would look after the buying and selling of cows and also the selling of the milk.
This past week, I travelled with Gerhard, a young MCC worker from Cuauhtemoc, Mexico, to southern Bolivia … near Yacuiba. It’s called El Gran Chaco (the great plains) area of Bolivia. Gorgeous climate, I thought. A little drier, longer views, very gently rolling land buffeted off in the west by what look like the Buffalo Head Hills south of La Crete, Alberta; a moderate, handsome wall in the distance. My kind of mountains; any higher and they seem dangerous.
I spent some time watching the making of cheese in a colony in El Gran Chaco, partly because I stayed an afternoon and a night with the family who manage one of their cheese factories. It looked – to me – something like this. Like in most families in the colonies, the girls (sometimes also one or two of the boys or the dad) milk in the evening, just before dark. They don’t allow lights, so as the sun sets, they are quickly working in the dusk of early evening sometimes with the help of flashlights. The milk is stored overnight but only marginally cooled. Early the next morning, by 5:30 am or so, they milk again, and that milk is added to the milk of the night before, put into 20 litre cans, and taken on small wagons to the road where it waits the horse-drawn pick up wagon.
I walked to the factory. The manager had been there at 5:30 to build a fire under the large steam tank which is used to heat the milk during the early curdling process. I watched as the wagons of milk cans began to arrive from all over the colony, and when they were all there, I counted 10, each with at least 60 to 80 cans. That’s 70 to 100 farmers if the average family has 10 cans waiting by the road; some have only a couple and some have more. The young drivers unload their cans as every liter is counted and then they sit and visit drinking coke for, they said, a couple of hours while the milk is heated and the whey is separated out from the milk during the curdling and straining process. The whey is piped to a large outside tank after it separates and after a while, they refill their cans with whey and trot off to return the cans to the farmers, where it’s used to feed the pigs and other farm animals. The manager told me there are 18 men working in that particular cheese factory, but the industry also includes the ten drivers, the horses, the women who milk and feed the cows, the men who put up the daily feed for the cows. It’s a labor intensive farming industry by which the Mennonites have been well-known for many decades in Bolivia, Mexico, Argentina and also Belize.
I have wondered why that one agricultural industry has become so an assumed part of their farming. Why, when they start a new colony, is there automatically a cheese factory? What would happen if they just stopped and let each farmer figure our for themselves how to make a living? I’m sure there are reasons: one would be that they know how to do milk cows and make cheese. You don’t need much higher schooling to look after the cows and run a cheese factory, which suits them; they don’t go to school past about 12 or 13 years of age. They also know how to organize a colony of farmers to make this industry happen and … so far, there is always a market for their cheese. So, cheese makes sense.
On the other hand, it also seems to me that it’s not an industry that will make any of them prosperous by itself. Unless they have really good cash crops alongside, the milk they sell at 2.20 bs to 2.60 bs (.40 USD) a liter is basically low-to-moderate-income farming. So my guess is that the milking and cheese making also suits their commitment to modest living. Not many will get rich, but it’s a way to provide significant work and daily chores for what are usually large families. They don’t engage in much activity that is recreational; life is more about work than play, and looking after cows, and supporting the cheese making provides activity at home and quite a lot of part time employment just off the farm. It may even be true that the moderate income also suits them as a way of keeping people busy without looking too much at other opportunities outside the colonies, which most of the colonies see as problematic.
I don’t know if any colony leader or lay Mennonite person would say the cheese and milk industry has anything to do with their faith and belief system. I would love to listen when this is talked about after all the cows are milked, the sun has set, the generator is turned off for the day and the lamp is on in the kitchen. Maybe they don’t talk about this, but I suspect sometimes they do.
As with most of us, it does all tend to run together eventually – like vereniche and Mennonitism, clean houses and Lutheranism or white caps and Eastern Mennonites. What we hang on to and cherish may, in the end, matter little to our spiritual life and our faith, but it may provide a stability, an identifier, a social and personal pillar that becomes kind of a fixture. Sometimes our fixtures become then, without anyone being able to articulate how it happened, a muddying up of what was intended as an intentional spiritual or lifestyle helper. But sometimes also, the fixture, the identifier remains in place as a steadying hand at the wheel of busyness … when all is said and done for the day.