Mennonite Success in Siberia

“Wonderful things are happening in our country at present.”


An Economic Miracle in Siberia




G v a r d e y s k – An economic miracle is afoot in a western Siberian village founded by Mennonite settlers from Ukraine in 1911. Two men around the age of 40, , have created a farm there with 14.826 acres of land and 40 employees.


Their village was originally called “Waldheim” and was named after a location in the Mennonite Molochna colony of eastern Ukraine. The Russian village is known better today by its official name: „Apollonovka“. Yet most of the acreage is located in the village of Medvezhye, 35 km to the west of Apollonovka. Apollonovka is located 51 km north of Issilkul and 150 km northwest of the metropolis of Omsk. Issilkul is the border crossing for trains to and from Kazakhstan.


“Our firm’s success has meant a lot for our village,” Director Jacob Dirksen assures. “The last two years were less successful, but in the last 13 years we have generally enjoyed great success. Much progress has been made.” Co-owner David Epp reports: “Much was still touch-and-go around the year 2000, because nothing was happening in the village. Many were fixing to move to Germany. But due to the success of a feed mill (operated by relatives), they decided to remain.” David himself is a returnee from Germany and the younger brother of Peter Epp, a well-known Mennonite historian from Issilkul. Three of the firm’s 40 workers are returnees from Germany.


Jacob Dirksen adds: „If we continue to succeed on the land and there will be no war, then we can expect a very promising future. We have been able to supply people with bread and work. This has helped our congregation, for we have the practice in our church of paying the tithe. If business is good, then things are also good for our church.” A new and larger Mennonite church building was just dedicated in Apollonovka in April. Nine-hundred persons attended the opening dedication – in a village with 850 inhabitants. This Mennonite congregation has 230 baptised members.


The community in general has also enjoyed the fruits of this success: Every spring, a huge, yellow road grader produced in Russia supplies the region with usable gravel roads. The machine is the gift of a Mennonite businessman from Canada.


This major enterprise calls itself „Willock Farm“(see „www.willock-farm.ru“ in Russian), but it consists essentially of two separate firms. Since 2006, the firm “Sevmaster” in Medvezhye has been producing harrows, harrow springs, discs and carts for hauling planters. In this fashion, the enterprise can supply its workers with year-round employment. When snow is outside, the entire work force is indoors producing implements. “This is a long-time issue for villages”, reports Epp, the brain behind “Sevmaster”. “Farming was always a seasonal trade. During winter, people resorted to drinking or would leave for the city and never come back.” Today, income from farming (mostly grain) and implement production is nearly equal.


Does the state respond to these Russian-German activities with reserve? “We only experience gratitude“, David Epp assures. „We feel ourselves in no way under pressure.“ Local authorities „place a lot of trust in us Germans, for they know we keep our promises.” The enterprise is no longer a stranger among local banks; loans are no longer a problem. “We also have very good, low interest rates,” Epp adds. “Wonderful things are happening in our country at present.”


The secret of success

Dirksen and Epp are convinced that in Russia a successful agricultural enterprise must begin from scratch. During the 1990’s, a North American relief agency, „Mennonite Central Committee“, had funded an agricultural project in Nieudachino east of Omsk. Jacob Dirksen attributes its failure to the fact that it was “attached to an old, existing collective farm. Those involved were unbelievers. They prolonged the life of a corrupt system. But we were able to start up with younger persons not acquainted with the old system.”


Dirksen and Epp seriously question the business practices of a former collective farm employing 400 workers 30 km to the south in the village of Solntsevka. Epp assures: “They have too many workers; they are underemployed. The have modern technology, but everything is too big. That keeps them from working economically; salaries remain very low. If the collective farm had gone belly-up earlier and one could have begun anew from scratch, then the enterprise might still have been successful.” Solntsevka is also a largely German and Mennonite village; 10 of Willock’s current employees are commuting to work from this village. “But we still have a long line of people waiting to work for us.”


The two heads stress though that their enterprise could never have gotten off the ground without the aid of a large-scale Mennonite farmer from Canada with Russian roots. Eighty-year-old Walter Willms, who today resides in Abbotsford on the outskirts of Vancouver/British Columbia, produced the multi-million-dollar, interest-free loans needed to found the company.


„Uncle Walter“, as his protégés fondly call him, first visited Apollonovka as the member of a group in 1997. The sale of his farm in the northern region of Fort St. John later made the construction of a feed mill in Apollonovka possible. The experiment was a success and the loan was quickly paid-off. Afterward, a bakery also came into being. “Uncle Walter” started the project with David and Jacob in 2002. He built himself a residence in Apollonovka and still spends roughly a month per year on location.


The new firm was registered under the names of Walter and Anna Willms; David and Jacob began farming with an old tractor on 890 acres of land. In 2006, an additional investor, Arthur Block (the brother of Anna), joined the venture. A year later, a run-down collective farm in Medvezhye, which had closed three years previous, was purchased. Jacob Dirksen adds: “The contract was so written from the beginning that David and I would be capable of becoming co-owners. That was a great incentive for us – we were able to become more than simple employees.“ In the meantime, roughly 40% of the loans have been repaid and final repayment appears possible in the foreseeable future.


From the outset, Walter Willms went to the trouble of schooling his protégés. “Walter has all kinds of experience with farming”, David relates. “So we sat at his feet and learned.”


David Epp believes in the development procedures practiced by „Sevmaster“: „We test the equipment we produce on our own fields. In this fashion we become acquainted with the weak spots of our products and are therefore capable of delivering quality products at a decent price.” The Golden Rule remains in effect for them: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


This enterprise doesn’t leave matters of faith back behind in the cloakroom. “We place trust in our workers”, David assures. When filling a tractor with diesel, we do not check up on them afterwards. Matters need to remain Christian: We see to it that no one is exploited.” And Jacob adds: “We act in the same way with our customers. We are always very concerned about keeping our word. Only then can trust grow.“ All taxes are paid; suspicions of corruption must always be avoided. There is no work on Sundays, even during harvest time.


Government encouragement has played a major role in this success story. The Russian state is very much committed to retaining “good people” in rural areas. Family man David Epp reports that the state presented him with roughly $30.000 US for the construction of his house. “They only checked us out a bit to make sure that we were really building a house. When the house was completed, it was already debt-free.”


National inflation is running at a bit over 10% per annum; yet these farmers were getting loans during 2017 at an interest rate of 2.7%. These loans are limited to agriculture – the usual interest rates still run between 13 and 14%.


Commentary: Is this model transferable?

David and Jacob are only mildly optimistic regarding the transfer of their model to other projects. “That would be possible if there were other ‘Uncle Walters’ out there”, they remarked. “But Walter might be the only person in all of Canada willing to place that much faith in Russia. Loans are a very complicated affair in the current global political situation.”


These two men had never heard of the „Mennonite Economic Development Association“ (MEDA) active in Canada. MEDA is involved for ex. with large government-sponsored projects in Ukraine. Would it therefore make more sense to search for new “Uncle Walters” under the well-heeled Christian businesspeople of China? Do any of our readers have such contacts?


The two are also reluctant regarding training and the exchange of experiences. “We are not that far yet,” explains Jacob. “We still have a lot of projects in mind. We need to do a lot yet before we have our house in order.”


It is in any case clear that without the creation of well-paying jobs, the continued Western exit of Russia’s Protestants is unstoppable. And churches dependent long-term upon the wallets of Western friends harbour little promise for the future. These two men do show the way for a possible resolution.


A question worth pondering

Roughly 10 of Willock’s employees are local, ethnic Russians. None of them hold a leading position. One could say it is not easy to locate “strong cadres of Russian nationality” in a village. The clever and sharp are very quick to exit and seek their fortune in cities. Those remaining behind are often the under-motivated and addicted. But is this indeed the entire picture?


What is the leadership of Willock Farm doing to insure that the terrible acts of revenge, which happened between 1920 and 1941, never reoccur? What are they doing differently today? What have Mennonites learned from the old catastrophes in Ukraine and Western Siberia? Did jealousy arise because Mennonites had shared too little with their Slavic neighbours? Is something being done today to keep the local income gap under control? Is enough being done if “the Russians” will remain your employees forever? Have you thought of making co-owners out of proven, ethnic-Russian employees?


Jacob Dirksen responds that it is still much too early to worry about an income gap. That is above all an internal issue between Russians: “There are Russians much more wealthy than we are. We do not notice any expressions of jealousy yet.” Russians are instead very much pleased with the development work being done by Russian-Germans.


Indeed, this question might be directed at the wrong audience. Russia’s “milk king” is a German from Germany, a friend of Vladimir Putin. Stefan Dürr calls nearly 495.000 acres and 60.000 head of cattle his own. His firms employ 4.000 people. If someone ever again tries to settle scores with “kulaks”, then businessmen such as Mr. Dürr would be at the front of the line. Mennonite enterprises in today’s Russia are infinitely smaller in size.


William Yoder, Ph.D.
Gvardeysk, 14 June 2018


A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #18-7, 1.818 words.