Subsistence and Commercial Activities. From their Beginnings, the Mennonites have been known for their agricultural skills. In the Netherlands and Prussia they drained swamps and built and maintained sophisticated canal Systems. The Swiss Mennonites bred exceptionally productive dairy cattle. In the eighteenth century, the Russian state recruited Prussian Mennonites to assist in developing agriculture in the Ukraine. Some became known for their dairy herds, merino sheep raising, and orchards, and the Russian Mennonites were pioneers in the production and marketing of the famous hard winter (turkey red) wheat, which later brought them to the attention of land agents in the United States and Canada. Today, most have become wage laborers, successful entrepreneurs, educators, or professionals, and only a minority earn a living by farming. Yet in Africa and Asia, many are still agrarian producers, and in Belize, the Mennonites provide nearly all the food consumed and Marketed in the country.
Industrial Arts. In Russia, they manufactured farm equipment for local use as well as for marketing. Among those groups discouraging commercial activity there are many who are skilled carpenters and cabinet and furniture makers.
Trade. Throughout their history, the Mennonites have depended on trade. In the Baltic, they were involved in the cereal grain trade. In Russia, they sold wool, wheat, and farm equipment. In North America, many become known not only for grain production but for processing and storage of grain. Although their communities have often been extensively involved in commercial activities, they have also been quite self-sufficient. Some of the more conservative groups such as the Holdeman strongly discourage wage labor or commercial occupations. In some cases, they are forbidden to earn interest or carry insurance.
Division of Labor. In Poland, Prussia, and Russia, the low level of development of technology required a community division of labor—farming or dike construction and maintenance necessitated a degree of cooperation that families alone could not provide. Otherwise, within households, there has been and for some, such as the Holdeman, there remains a strict division of labor between the sexes.
Land Tenure. In feudal societies, Mennonites normally held usufruct rights to land and allocated some for communal and family use. As peasants were emancipated and land was transformed into a commodity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, communities played increasingly smaller roles in the allocation and management of land. In North America, however, during the last part of the 1880s, some settlements of Russian origin continued to distribute and use land in a manner contrary to the prevailing private farmstead. The Swiss Mennonites had established early in their North American experience a freehold land tenure pattern that emphasized the individual private farmstead.