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Cultivating community

God’s design and an ethos of interdependence shape a Christian community’s approach to working the land Down Under

Jason Meier checks on the cattle at the Danthonia property. Photo by Simon Scott

Cultivating community
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Bounding kangaroos race Jason Meier as he drives a Polaris utility truck up dirt tracks and across creeks. He’s on his way to check on the 12 mobs of Angus cattle scattered over 5,500 Australian acres. A bronze sun has barely crested the rolling hills near Inverell, New South Wales. Three dogs—one red, one blond, and one black-and-tan—lean eagerly over the sides of the pickup, ready to move cattle from one paddock to another whenever Meier tells them to.

Meier’s Western boots and jeans wear the dirt of the field. His cowboy hat shields his face from the blazing sun and the rain. On the days Meier doesn’t personally check on the cattle’s supplements, water, and fencing, one of the other community brothers does. Meier, 25, is the leading stock man for the Danthonia Bruderhof, a community of about 200 people, half of them children. The Bruderhof is an Anabaptist movement with communities in seven ­countries, including the United States. The group’s Danthonia property is located in the Northern Tablelands, a region of New South Wales about seven hours north of Sydney. It’s in an area plagued with “droughts and flooding rains,” as Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar says in her famous poem “My Country.”

Like Mackellar, Meier’s love for the land shines.

“I love this work,” he said, gazing across the valley toward Danthonia’s campus. “I’m passionate about ­grazing, being outside, the animals. I love watching the cows eat what I planted. I find it rewarding, and it ­provides meat products for our community.”

The Bruderhof cares for the land. The land sustains the animals, which in turn provide for the community. It’s a holistic approach that mirrors the interdependence woven through the life these believers choose to live together.

Terraces climb the hills toward the campus buildings, slowing rainfall runoff. The wind ruffles a dozen grass species that have flourished this year amid unrelenting, torrential rains. Well-watered willows line Danthonia’s full creeks, and native trees obscure some of the buildings across the way. They represent some of the 150,000 trees planted on the property so far.

When Meier arrived as a 6-year-old, the landscape looked very different. Silvery skeletal trees in the middle of paddocks stood as stark reminders of the New England Dieback just a few decades before. Experts attribute that decimation of millions of eucalyptuses in the 1970s and ’80s to overgrazing, chemical fertilization, and understory clearing. Those common practices broke the region’s biodiversity. Insects without predators ate themselves out of house and home, leaving only shells of trees in their wake and a damaged ecosystem under the dirt.

Conservationists and smaller landowners worked to change farming methods in hopes of halting the damage. But much of the region is ­dominated by large corporations and conventional farmers who use chemical methods and are reluctant to adopt new techniques.

The push to maximize profits often makes long-term benefits a tough sell. But the Bruderhof people have a very different mission—service to their community and commitment to caring for the earth. That’s made them the perfect emissaries for a new land care strategy known as regenerative agriculture. It aims to restore the ecosystem through the increase of biodiversity, water retention, and soil health—or in Biblical terms, God’s design for creation’s flourishing.

It’s an approach to agriculture that mirrors their interdependent approach to life and to living out God’s command to be fruitful and ­multiply, to fill and subdue the earth.

Dogs eagerly await the day.

Dogs eagerly await the day. Photo by Simon Scott

THE BRUDERHOF ATTEMPTS to do what many Christians might see as an unrealistic ideal—living in intentional community in a way that mirrors descriptions of the early church in Acts 2 and 4.

The group formed in 1920 when German Protestant theologian Eberhard Arnold grew disillusioned with the German church in the aftermath of World War I. Bruderhof members fled Germany under Nazi opposition and eventually settled in the United States. The group has since grown to include 3,000 members in 24 communities around the world. Adult Bruderhof members take vows of poverty, sexual purity, and obedience and commit to ­serving wherever the group deems necessary.

In 1999, the Bruderhof agreed by 100 percent consensus, as is their practice, to get back to living off the land. They especially wanted to do that in a first-world, English-speaking country. That led them to Australia, and that year they purchased two adjoining farms. They named the entire property Danthonia and retained the former farm manager to continue running cattle and growing crops as he had before.

But within five years they realized the land was worn out and fast becoming a financial sinkhole.

That’s when Johannes Meier—Jason’s father—arrived in Australia from New York. Johannes grew up in the Bruderhof but left after high school to join Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. In time, he grew disillusioned by the members’ jockeying for power, as well as some members’ licentious lifestyles. He returned to the Bruderhof, taking vows to serve the community for life. When leaders asked him what he wanted to study, he said agriculture.

“But the church at the time needed nurses to care for a growing elderly population,” Johannes said. So he went to nursing school and served the community in that capacity for 10 years.

Everything we’re doing is about biomimicry, understanding the functions of nature that God made that give fertility and give life, and, as managers, using those functions to advance the health of the property.

In 2004, the Bruderhof wanted to send members to help the struggling Danthonia community. But it is notoriously difficult to get a visa to live in Australia—unless you’re a nurse. Johannes moved to Australia with his young family. Johannes is now Danthonia’s farm manager and hasn’t practiced nursing since arriving Down Under.

Back then, “there wasn’t even a thought about conventional versus anything else,” he said. “Farming was farming. And that included chemicals.” But conventional farming was proving to be financially unsustainable.

Leasing land to other farmers proved equally detrimental. “The lessor has one interest and that’s to make dollars. They will do whatever they need to do to make those dollars.” That usually meant overgrazing.

So Johannes began looking for a better way. After learning about managed grazing, the community set aside 200 acres as a trial, raising steers for their own use. They read books, made wall charts, and weighed the cattle to understand the paddocks’ biomass output. The first hard drought hit in 2009, and it turned out that the trial paddocks produced more grass and lasted longer into dry spells than the rest of their land.

Johannes didn’t stop there. The farm team also visited dozens of ­people, brought in consultants, and tried every angle that looked like it might put a plug in the land’s financial drain. They appealed to local experts in grazing and soil microbiology. But even after they started regenerative practices, Johannes says, there was still a missing piece.

“The fields that had been cropped for decades were not just dead. The soil was hard and had no soil structure.” The packed earth had no room for bugs or for air and water to soak in. Following local advice, they were still using herbicides to knock out the weeds. When it rained, water ran off in sheets, but they saw enough progress that they wanted to share what they had learned with other farmers and learn from them as well.

Young plants grow in the community’s garden.

Young plants grow in the community’s garden. Photo by Simon Scott

In 2018 they invited farmers, land care workers, regenerative agriculturists, and cattle breeders to visit their farm to talk about the regenerative methods. More than 200 people showed up to listen to speakers, share lunch made from food harvested at Danthonia, and experience the results of Bruderhof farming practices.

When one of the speakers, a microbiologist, talked about the link between living soil biology and how plant diversity builds soil and carbon, a lightbulb went on for Johannes.

“Everything we’re doing is about biomimicry, understanding the functions of nature that God made that give fertility and give life, and, as managers, using those functions to advance the health of the property,” he said.

It was time to pay attention to the dirt.

“You’re building a cathedral in the soil, beautiful spaces that hold ­oxygen, without which the soil cannot be fertile,” Johannes continued. “And that’s where we’re going, to learn to the best degree possible to work with creation the way God made it and to hone it and just be a part of it.”

Karen Zirkler is the executive officer for the nonprofit Southern New England Landcare Ltd. in Armidale, a town in New South Wales. Its ­mission is to lead and enable communities to reach sustainable land goals. For over 30 years, she’s watched land care in the region progress to include regenerative agriculture.

Zirkler says the Bruderhof community is part of the larger solution. Having a stable group of people caring for the land and teaching others provides continuity in a political climate where the letterheads can change with each election.

“Land care is as much about the people as about the land,” she said. “It’s about solving problems together.”

When Bruderhof members host other farmers, they get to share their faith in action. But hosting also allows them to learn from others and get to know their neighbors. They regularly welcome visits from farmers and graziers and plan to host a biodynamics course this month. After years of relationship-building, neighboring farming families sought help from the members at Danthonia when extreme drought hit the region in 2017-2019.

Johannes Meier inspects the soil composition.

Johannes Meier inspects the soil composition. Photo by Simon Scott

JOHANNES SAYS THE REGENERATION of the Bruderhof’s life on the farm has been a journey. “And it hasn’t been easy or quick. It’s an ongoing process still.”

One of the most recent regenerative trials employs a natural system of grazing. Instead of letting cows graze in one paddock for extended periods of time with no rest for the plants, Jason and Johannes Meier adopted a method called “grazing naturally.”

Johannes explains it in Australian terms. “It involves putting the cows in one of seven paddocks to graze the grass from the height of a beer can down to the height of a crushed beer can.” The cows then move to Paddock 2 to do the same thing, then Paddock 3, and so on.

As soon as Paddock 1 is back to full beer-can height, the cows move back to take it down to crushed-can height again, and the process continues, always returning to Paddock 1 when it reaches 5 inches. At the end of the growing season, Paddock 1 becomes Paddock 7 and won’t be grazed the next season. “I was intrigued to find a grazing system that had the concept of the Sabbath in it!” Johannes said. Last year, the test paddocks produced triple the biomass of the traditional fields.

You’re building a cathedral in the soil, beautiful spaces that hold oxygen, without which the soil cannot be fertile.

Grass isn’t the only thing flourishing on the Bruderhof property. On a Saturday afternoon, members Ben and Martha Zimmerman drive toward Swan Peak, the property’s highest point. Martha points out an unexpected black-faced cuckoo­shrike roosting in a tree. Next week she’ll bring her grade three and four students to identify the tropical songbird for their annual bird count. Ten years ago, the class count found 100 distinct species. By 2022, the list topped nearly 150. Many of the new arrivals are harbingers of increased vegetation and healthier land.

Johannes says that’s a result of their changed practices. “When ­people ask how grazing management fits into rebuilding landscape, you can’t answer that without going into plant diversity, soil nutrition, soil structure, and soil biology.”

That means things like bacteria and fungi, protozoa, earthworms, and dung beetles. “But you can’t answer about soil biology without addressing grazing management,” Johannes says. “It’s one system.”

That one system affects every aspect of life on their farm.

“If you look at living, healthy soil, and if you look at symbiosis and the way all the organisms depend on each other to survive, they can’t do it by themselves,” Johannes said. “I see in nature a picture of how we should live as people. So when the whole topic of sacrifice comes up, it’s not my own life and what I want to get out of it, but I’m part of the whole and I’m gonna give my best.”

Grazing pasture at the Danthonia Bruderhof.

Grazing pasture at the Danthonia Bruderhof. Photo by Simon Scott

LIVING FOR THE GOOD OF THE COMMUNITY forms the basis for everything Bruderhof members do. But some who have left the Bruderhof disagree and call the group “controlling.” They say the group dictates how and when they can see family members who remain in the community. Leavers say their reasons for leaving—such as not believing, embracing a gay or transgender lifestyle, unwillingness to give up autonomy for life, or an inability to follow the rules—are complicated by the group’s use of coercion. Says one leaver, “Some stay trapped and submit; some break away and live their lives. Everyone handles it differently, and everyone’s specific scenario is different, as it is in the real world.”

Chris and Norann Voll say the number of those who leave are about the same as any other church or community, as are their reasons for ­leaving. When the Volls arrived at Danthonia in 2002 with two young sons, they became the 50th members in Australia. Norann didn’t want to come but obeyed the directives from the community’s leaders. She remembers the dry, difficult farm life and her struggle being so far from family.

She gave birth to the couple’s third son just as it began to rain after a drought. That marked a beginning of healing. “God got me to a place I really didn’t want to be and has changed me in ways I didn’t know I needed in a foreign land with very capricious weather and wild seasons,” she says. Now she teaches grades 11 and 12 literature at the community school, writes for its magazine, Plough Quarterly, and tweets regular encouragement to her 11,900 Twitter followers.

The Bruderhof members see their work as an expression of worship, but not everyone works the land at Danthonia. By 7 a.m., most adults are at school, in the kitchen, or at another venture—a sign workshop with a new 3,500-square-foot addition. In the shop, Danthonia Designs, men and women carve and paint high density urethane foam, shape aluminum, or chisel out wooden signs for businesses, schools, and government entities in Australia. Business profits get shared across the global Bruderhof network as needed.

Children wait with their teacher for their parents before communal lunch.

Children wait with their teacher for their parents before communal lunch. Photo by Simon Scott

The sign company is an Australian operation. Members in America and Europe make Community Playthings, a line of sturdy classroom ­furniture, or adaptive products for people with disabilities through their Rifton business. They also run Plough Publishing and Plough Quarterly.

The group’s larger goal of being a self-sustaining farming and sign-­making community allows room for side projects and personal interests. In an effort to utilize their land, they turned the former airstrip into an olive grove. Last year, the whole community helped harvest the olives and went home with fresh oil after a communitywide fresh bread and olive oil celebration.

“We need that celebration component,” says Chris Voll, who doesn’t have an official title but holds a position of influence in the community. He often posts YouTube videos promoting life at Danthonia. “The community will never survive if you don’t have really organic ways of learning to live together and get past each other’s idiosyncrasies. Or even better, learn how to celebrate those and bring out the best in each other.”

One way to celebrate, says Voll, is to find ways to bless each other. “There’s tons of scope in a shared life to make joys for each other, or to notice the needs of somebody before they even ask for it, things like pets or hobbies, because those things can be really healthy.”

One member’s bee project made enough honey that Danthonia shipped a gift of more than 1,000 liters to communities in the United States. Another member’s two fluffy but fiercely loyal Maremma dogs watch over chickens in the orange orchard and will kill foxes that ­foolishly attempt to steal a hen or two.

Danthonia’s property also boasts pecan trees, nashi pears, Fell ponies, camels, and home-brewed “Bruderhops,” all because a member or family had an interest or passion they wanted to pursue. One member’s pig-­raising project provides the group with sausage. Norann Voll incorporated some into the catering menu for a local couple’s wedding.

Chris Voll says the Bruderhof recognizes that intentional community is not for everyone. “We’re an ordinary bunch of people trying to do something extraordinary. And that only comes about through great ­dollops of grace, and a lot of joy and humor.”

Chris and Norann Voll

Chris and Norann Voll Photo by Simon Scott

AS PART OF THEIR DEDICATION to living life together, everyone at Danthonia gathers around a bonfire on the main lawn several times a week to sing folk songs and hear testimonies or words of wisdom. In late September, as the Southern Hemisphere crept out of winter, people chose songs related to spring, even as they bundled against the chill. Few people need the distributed songbooks to sing in multipart harmony. Voll played violin in the piecemeal band that provides accompaniment. He grew up with the songs and knows them by heart. Young people delivered hot chocolate prepared that afternoon in one of the community kitchen’s ­barrel-sized mixers.

Several guests joined in the ­gathering, including non-Bruderhof friends visiting from the United States. That’s part of the group’s commitment to serving and loving those outside the community, as well as those inside.

“Being an outward-facing community is something that’s really important to us,” Voll said. The group supports multiple parachurch and secular groups that fight global poverty, trafficking, and hunger, works of mercy that Christ commanded. The Bruderhof people say their faith is a false piety unless demonstrated through action.

We’re an ordinary bunch of people trying to do something extraordinary. And that only comes about through great dollops of grace, and a lot of joy and humor.

Area towns also benefit from Bruderhof involvement, as evidenced by the presence of a fire truck at Danthonia that allows the men to participate in the rural ­volunteer brigade. The Bruderhof schools are open to nonmembers. And community children, including the Volls’ youngest son, play soccer for the local league.

Still, Chris Voll calls his group’s efforts a drop in the bucket of Christ’s regenerative work in the world.

“We know that the efforts we put in obviously can’t solve global problems. On the other hand, they can change us. And they can certainly do a lot to heal and change our landscape. And we can throw our pebble in the proverbial pond and watch the ripple effect.”

And those ripples are spreading, something Jason Meier wants to see continue. He would love nothing more than to keep living at Danthonia and doing what he does. “But that may not happen,” he said. “I made a lifetime commitment. The church can ask me to go anywhere in the world.”

For now, his personal goals match those of the community and property: to grow the stud herd to 600 cows. He’s halfway there.

—This story has been corrected to reflect that Bruderhof communities exist in seven countries.

Amy Lewis

Amy is a WORLD contributor and a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Fresno Pacific University. She taught middle school English before homeschooling her own children. She lives in Geelong, Australia, with her husband and the two youngest of their seven kids.


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