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Pennsylvania’s Mennonites know how to make money: by capitalizing on trends

By November 27, 2019No Comments

(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)

Those of us who live in the Philadelphia area are used to occasionally seeing “old world” people around. They dress in 19th-century clothing, drive around in horse and buggies and generally keep themselves separate from the rest of the general population.

They’re mostly known as Amish, but there are many related sects. One of these are Mennonites – a close-knit, 500-plus-year-old Christian group that shuns modern technology, wears straw hats and calico dresses and embraces a simple lifestyle that adheres closely to its centuries-old doctrines of worship, religious faith and pacifism. The Mennonites are good, God-fearing people. Oh, and they also know how to make a buck.

To prove that point, all you need to do is visit Kutztown, Pennsylvania, a community located about 70 miles outside Philadelphia where about 150 families that belong to the Old Order Mennonite church live and work. Most of them are farmers – specifically dairy farmers – and these days, what with the challenges of tariffs, increasing rents, falling prices and lack of labor, farming hasn’t been easy.

So what do these old-world farmers and pacifists do in these challenging times? They do what people did in the old world. They adjust. They’re now selling sticky buns and cappuccino.

“It’s hard to make a living on a dairy farm these days,” David Kurtz, son of longtime dairy farmers told the Reading Eagle. “I’m trying to get into another economy that’s not agriculture-related.” Kurtz has recognized an opportunity: people like wholesome, organic, fresh food and products sold by people we can trust. Kurtz is one of a bunch of Mennonite entrepreneurs who are capitalizing on this trend.

Entrepreneurs like John Zimmerman, who – with two partners – turned a 200-year-old barn into a modern farmers’ market where fellow members of his community sell everything from locally sourced bourbon-flavored honey to garlic-flavored cheese curd. Oh and yes, plenty of fruits, vegetables, strawberries, raspberries, peaches, sour cherries and elderberries as well as cappuccinos (with milk produced by cows from nearby farms) and – of course – “chow-chow” – a classic Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy of vegetables mixed in a sweet brine. Does it really matter that Mennonites are mostly of German and Swiss descent? Of course not. If it sells, it sells!

Does this also mean that the Mennonites in Kutztown are getting out of the farming business altogether? Not at all. Most have owned their farms for generations and continue to operate them as before. But these are people that come from a long tradition of adapting and thriving regardless of forces beyond their control. So in these tough times for farmers, they’re doing just that: adapting by finding other sources of related income. That’s what good entrepreneurs do. And it’s certainly not a sin to earn a decent livelihood.

“The Mennonites are not frozen in time. They recognize we’re in a niche economy,” said Patrick Donmoyer, director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University. “They’re adapting, finding new ways to make things work.”

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