We met Neva and Grant Kaufmann at World Plenary of Friends in Peru and were fascinated by their story. The Kaufmans have lived in Bolivia for several decades but they are not typical Bolivian Friends. They are Conservative Friends who moved to Bolivia from Iowa twenty years ago and became cattle ranchers. They live as simply and as sustainably as possible. With their mostly homemade plain dress, they look like Friends who’ve stepped out of the 19th century.
They moved to an area called the Chaco, in the southeast part of Bolivia, where the climate is extremely hot and arid. When they arrived, the pond on their property looked like pea soup. To make the water drinkable, they had to boil it over a wood fire. The cistern held rainwater, but it rains so rarely the water was insufficient. They couldn’t grow corn because it is too dry. The ground was unproductive. They lost cattle because there was not enough grass to feed them. Through the Mennonites they learned about panicum gatton, a species of grass that grows in shade. They also learned about a system of ranching called sylvopastoralism, which is “the practice of combining forestry and grazing of domesticated animals in a mutually beneficial way.” Instead of cutting down trees to create a monoculture, the Kaufmanns planted panicum grass, which grows under trees and feeds their cattle. As a result of this practice, the Kaufmanns began to see deer, wild pigs and new species of birds. As their ranch prospered, neighboring ranchers also began to follow their example.
They learned that certain trees called choroquete thrive in this dry climate. Their leaves taste like salad. In June through October they drop their leaves and help create a cushion, which the cattle like to lick up. “It’s a beautiful symbiotic system,” explained Grant.
Their life hasn’t been easy. In the first year they killed over 300 poisonous snakes. They had to work hard to live sustainably but they have a happy family and a deep gratitude to God. Neva explained:
“Our family loves to work and loves to have fun. They love to milk cows. One son wanted a cow since he was four years old. Nathan likes ranching, and Rachel trains horses. She loves animals and is very gentle and kind.”
Grant told us: “The biblical counsel ‘whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might’ has encouraged us to press ahead with the ranch at a time when Bolivia's chronic political and legal instability, combined with threats of climate change, have discouraged many others. Thus far, I believe we have good cause to be thankful to our Creator for all that He has done for us and through us in our little corner of South America.”
Asked what was most memorable about the FWCC Plenary, they responded: “Knowing again that we are not alone….The essence of our Friends community seems to be sharing the love of God, whether we call it that or something else. This was the Pisaq experience for us.”)
How did you become a Quaker?
Neva responded: My earliest memories of Friends' meeting for worship were the quiet waiting with family and friends in Paullina meeting in NW Iowa. My Great Grandfather Anton Tjossem was one of the founders of that meeting in the late l800s. There were good agricultural lands available in that place and some Norwegian families moved to Obrien Co. where they could practice their religion undisturbed. There were also Scots who became a significant part of the Friends' community there. There were some who wore plain dress and used the classic English plain speech, but the focus of Paullina Friends was always the direct relationship with God, and adherence to principles of peace with all.
During the years following WWII most of the focus of our meeting was on promoting peace, offering homes to European refugees for a few years (we had two German families living in our upstairs and my dad hired the two men to help with farm work), encouraging the Friends Committee on National Legislation's work to seek a world free of war through justice, supporting AFSC in every way possible. When our generation approached the age to be drafted most of the young men registered as conscientious objectors. There was one non-registrant.
With so many influences toward peace and justice, I had few issues to settle having to do with peace on earth. But my own spiritual state was far from settled. During my college years, I tried a variety of churches, learning from a Baptist minister that there was a new covenant to be entered into with God! I tried to fit together the scripture that we memorized as children with the practices of Quaker meeting and an adult faith in relationship with God.
These questions drifted with me for several years until l972 when I joined an apple picking crew of young Friends in SE Ohio. As part of the local Friends' Meeting in Barnesville, Ohio I attended Stillwater Meeting. I still vividly remember the meeting for worship in which the “Presence in the Midst” became real to me. Although I had sat through countless meetings and church service in the years since attending Paullina Meeting as a child, never had I felt that God was present and active. Suddenly I was aware that this theory I had heard all my life, that when two or three gather together in His name He is present, was absolutely true right then and there! Nothing changed except that living reality.
The rest is a story of learning to allow Life to live in me. To guide and correct me. To strengthen me in the truth that comes gently and without fanfare. Thus to be a Friend.
Grant responded: Unlike Neva, who is a birthright Friend and descendant of the "Valiant 60", I came to Quakerism as a young adult. My father was Jewish and my mother Gentile/Christian. Although both believed in God, they had lived their lives basically as secular Americans.
Unwelcome in either synagogue or church because of their union, they simply chose to "do nothing" until their desires for a spiritual community and my own yearnings for a knowledge of God as a young teenager led us to visit a Friends meeting when I was around 13. Accepting as a matter of principle, they offered a welcome to our family, and the quiet worship offered an outlet for my own spiritual searchings.
Always a great reader, I had read the Bible and many religious books by this time but could never "put it all together". The transforming moment came some months later when an older Friend rose to speak in meeting and opened by quoting the first verses of the book of Hebrews: "God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son..."
Like George Fox on Pendle Hill, "my heart did leap for joy!" If the eternal God did "in these days" speak to us by His Son, then there is a way through the veil of confusion and God, in all His fullness, is knowable! This summed up the Quaker message and provided me a way forward.
Some years later, I came in contact with Conservative Friends, whose clear Christian testimony, combined with unprogrammed worship and a prophetic understanding of ministry, dovetailed with my own understandings of God's work. I moved my membership to Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) where I have remained a member ever since.
What has been your experience with FWCC?
Grant replied: Pisac was our third FWCC conference of Friends. (We also attended Tela, Honduras, and Ghost Ranch, NM, with our then-young children.) Our work in Bolivia has kept us rather much "out of the loop" of Quakerism for the last 20 years, so when we learned there was to be a world gathering virtually "next door" in Peru, we were pleased to be appointed by our yearly meeting (Ohio Conservative) as representatives. Although we have worked and had fellowship with many sorts of Christian people over the years, we remain very much Friends at heart. Nowhere else that I have been are people so open to the voice of God's spirit or so ready to accept one another (warts and all) with loving-kindness. These two traits, I believe, are the foundation for transformation. We cannot experience transformation (at least for the good) if we are hardened against the SOURCE of all good, nor if we harden ourselves against one another and come to view others in political terms (as pawns to be manipulated) rather than as fellow humans in whom we are called to "answer that of GOD". These are the hallmark traits of Friends, across all the diversity, so it came as no real surprise to see transformation happening in the hearts of those present or to hear of it occurring across the globe as the Friend's message has continued to spread well beyond our Anglo-American roots. We all went away, I think, if not transformed, at least blessed and reanimated to share the blessing with others.
What was most memorable about the Plenary in Peru?
Neva replied: What was most memorable about the gathering in Peru was knowing again that we are not alone. In Bolivia for close to 20 years, seeking to live in a way which promotes awareness of God's love and the abundance of His resources, there have been many frustrations. People do not necessarily understand generosity. It appears to some to be weakness or stupidity. Ever give from heart felt love and later learn that the recipient was hoping for MORE? Didn't think the gift was good enough? The essence of our Friends community seems to be sharing the love of God, whether we call it that or something else. This was the Pisaq experience.
Why did you move to Bolivia?
Grant replied: "Why Bolivia?" This is a question we are often asked (and ask ourselves). Why give up the comforts and security of life in the USA to invest our life savings and 20 years of our family's labor in one of the most backward areas of a poor country, known the world over for its political instability, corruption and legal insecurity? The only real answer I can give is what Jacob said when he reached Eben-Ezer: "Thus far has the LORD led me." As Friends and followers of Jesus, we have always tried to live our lives following the leadings of God's spirit. As such, we are no strangers to "outside the box" decisions, but always within the parameters of where God has called us, involving alternatives in agriculture and witnessing to God's love. I have always liked the saying, " If not us, who? If not now, when?" This world is full of brokenness and suffering. We each have God-given abilities and understanding. We are each called to foster SHALOM. What we do for even the least among people, we do for Christ. We have had our successes and failures. We have grown old in God's service and the world is passing to a new generation. To them, I would most want to communicate "In all your ways, acknowledge HIM and HE will direct your paths." Only God sees the end from the beginning. He is worthy of our trust.
Please tell us about the development of your ranch.
Grant replied: In the development of the ranch, Phase 1 involved fencing the perimeter of the property so that we were able to control stocking numbers. Phase 2 was to divide the property internally into several large (200-1500 HA) paddocks so the movement of the cattle could be controlled and the native range better utilized. Phase 3 was to progressively fence smaller paddocks near water sources (digging new ponds where none existed previously), clearing the understory to about a 60% shade cover and seeding an adapted grass (panicum gatton) under the remaining tree cover.
The original information on the Gatton Panicum came from the British Foreign Agriculture Service's "Centro de Investigacion Agricola Tropical"(CIAT) which, at the time, had a model ranch not from where we now live in the Chaco. The Mennonites in the Paraguayan part of the Chaco had also worked with this species of grass, and it was from them that we got our first seed.
Concurrently, we brought in bulls of improved breeds to increase the growth rate of the cattle as the available nutrients also increased from grass and range management. All of this was (and is) a big project and we are nowhere near the end of it yet, but so far we can note a very substantial increase in meat and milk marketed, compared with the traditional system and, much to our satisfaction, a steady increase in wildlife, as the grass and water sources benefit the ranch's wild inhabitants as well as the cattle. The moment was right for the technology to spread among the local people as well and there are now many other ranches following the silvopasture system. I think the fact that we were just fellow cattlemen rather than a government or NGO project with outside funding, and dependent, as they are on our cattle for our livelihood, gave them the courage to try something new which their natural conservatism had heretofore resisted.
The biblical counsel "whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might" has encouraged us to press ahead with the ranch at a time when Bolivia's chronic political and legal instability, combined with threats of climate change have discouraged many others. Thus far, I believe we have good cause to be thankful to our Creator for all that He has done for us and through us in our little corner of South America
Some question whether meat production is sustainable. What are your thoughts?
Unfortunately, it seems to be a weakness of our times to discard the wisdom of Millennia in favor of our own new (and supposedly better) ideas. To me, the issue seems pretty straightforward. There are currently something like seven billion people on the earth, a figure projected to grow to at least 12 billion over the next couple of generations. All of these people are going to need to eat every day, which means a great deal more food must be produced. The present world food system relies very heavily on industrial type grain production, something which requires large expanses of flat land in moderate climatic zones and carries a high environmental cost.
A large portion of the earth's land area is unsuited to this type of agriculture. Of this land, nearly all but the driest deserts and polar ice caps is, however, utilizable by some type of grazing animals (cattle, sheep, goats, camels, llamas, and so forth). These animals, by the nature of their digestive systems, can convert raw nutrient vegetable matter (graze and browse) into high nutrient-dense proteins (meat and milk) as well as providing other useful goods like wool and leather. It was for these obvious benefits that these creatures were domesticated in the first place. In a properly managed grazing system, the total environmental cost is very low. Grazing animals return to the soil from which they derive nutrients about 98% of the what they consume, the remaining 2% being the famous belches, which are mostly a result of grain feeding. I do not recall seeing a ranch cow belch when processing forage….
God is the giver of life and the creator of all that is. He has created us humans as rational beings and entrusted the care of His creation into our hands. It is ours to manage as good stewards, not to hoard as miserly owners or to loot as robbers.