UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee Partner Up

As World War II was ravaging Europe, a number of the allied nations hammered out a plan to help the devastated countries recover when the war ended. On November 9, 1943, forty-four nations, meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, chartered the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

M.R. Zigler, Executive Secretary of the Brethren Service Committee

Brethren Service Committee Executive Secretary M.R. Zigler was a real mover and a shaker, destined for his time in history. Source unknown.

The Heifer Project of the Church of the Brethren Service Committee was already underway at that time. Heifers were being donated and raised for shipment to Spain (see last post), with growing interest in shipping to Belgium, as well. M.R. Zigler, the executive secretary of the Brethren Service Committee (BSC), lobbied UNRRA during its formative time to ship Heifer Project animals to Europe. But many UNRRA officials believed shipping livestock was too hazardous an undertaking. Meanwhile, the Heifer Project successfully made their first shipment of animals to Puerto Rico in May 1944.

A year later, in early May 1945 as the war in Europe was coming to an end, the Agricultural Rehabilitation Division of UNRRA finally obtained permission to ship livestock. A request had come in from the Near East Foundation for bulls for Greece to help rebuild their devastated dairy industry through artificial insemination. UNRRA called on M.R. Zigler for help, and Zigler called on Benjamin Bushong, a Brethren dairyman and cattle breeder from Pennsylvania.

Ben Bushong

Benjamin G. Bushong. Courtesy Mark Bushong.

The bull Parnassus in Greece.

The bull Parnassus being led to the Greek Orthodox bishop for blessing. Courtesy of United Nations Archives and Record Management Section.

Bushong located six purebred Brown Swiss bulls that fit the bill. Heifer Project paid for and donated the bulls for UNRRA to ship to Greece. The bulls left St. John’s, Canada, May 14, 1945, on the SS Boolongena. That same day, the Ag Rehab Division of UNRRA requisitioned 600 mares and 600 head of cattle to be prepared for shipment.

Ships were lined up. Feed was purchased. But UNRRA had a problem: where would they get the men to take care of the animals on the ships? The UNRRA Livestock Program Historical Report says,

[M]ost available manpower was either in defense work or in military service. Faced with the problem of a ship soon ready to sail, the BSC was asked to supply enough men for this first vessel. Since the constituency of the Church of the Brethren was of rural background, it was believed that enough men could be found who had farm deferments and thus would be available for this voyage. In a short time enough men had signified their availability to man several ships and thus the program of recruiting ‘sea-going cowboys’ was begun.

An agreement was worked out between UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee that the BSC would recruit the estimated 8,000 cattle tenders UNRRA would need for its projected shipments; in return, UNRRA would provide free shipping for the Heifer Project animals sent on UNRRA ships. By the end of the program less than two years later, about 7,000 men and boys ages 16 to 72 had served as seagoing cowboys on UNRRA’s 360 livestock shipments. They accompanied some 300,000 animals to Europe and China, of which 4,000 were from the Heifer Project.

You might wonder, why on earth did a church organization take on such a monumental task for a non-church agency? UNRRA’s historical report says,

The Church of the Brethren was and is actively interested in dynamic Christianity. The willingness to provide men for the first ships was due to a realization of an urgent need in a justifiable project which was in critical circumstances. However, the contracting for 8,000 men was based on broader and perhaps more fundamental reasons. First of all was the belief that the livestock program was one which was extremely significant for the rebuilding of war devastated countries. Because of the rural background, the denomination could use some of its abilities in this unusual work. It was also believed that for many such a trip would be an unusually broadening and educational experience which would express itself in an increased interest in the relief program, a better understanding of the effects of war on the lives of people, an active desire to build a better world. These may have been idealistic motivations but numerous examples can now be cited to prove the justification of such reasoning.”

And my interviews of well over 150 of these men bear this statement out.

Next post: Cowboys at sea and abroad on Thanksgiving

Pierre Ferrari Talks about Heifer International

Heifer International, the award-winning development organization that grew out of the Heifer Project, is celebrating 70 years of service with events all across the country this year. One of those events, which I’m co-chairing, begins today right here in the land of Heifer’s beginnings. I’d like to kick off that event by sharing a phone interview I had this week with Heifer’s President and CEO, Pierre Ferrari.

Me: Thank you, Pierre, for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview! As you are aware, this blog is about the history of the seagoing cowboys, and that history can’t be told without also telling the story of the Heifer Project, the early years of Heifer International. As its current leader, I’d like to know what drew you to Heifer International. What was there about the organization that made you want to become its leader?

Pierre: First, the job was available. Second, Heifer was the right size for me to have an impact on its operation, and it had sufficient size that the organization would have an impact on poverty and hunger for the things that matter. So it’s really an interesting combination of feeling that I could have an impact as a leader, and also that I could be actively involved in the direction of the organization so it could have a substantially greater impact than it has had. I very much like the idea of community development and firmly believe in the poor being a principal agent for their own future so they can gain confidence, accountability, and self-reliance; and I thought, wow, an organization that is committed to that ideal and philosophy is where I want to work.

Third, the level of independence that Heifer has because it collects donations that essentially aren’t restricted gives the organization tremendous capacity and leverage to try the things that really work and to try to do the right things even better.

Me: This is a special year for Heifer as you celebrate the organization’s 70 years of service with events all across the country. The committee for the northern Indiana event to be held at Camp Alexander Mack in Milford this weekend is thrilled to have you coming to the land of Heifer’s roots to participate. Can you tell us what the theme of these events, Beyond Hunger, means to you?

Pierre: Our mission is to end poverty and hunger. By working in a variety of ways in a more sophisticated approach, we want to go beyond just subsistence. This will end hunger and eliminate poverty in those places where we work, and we can have a genuine fundamental impact on the environment and a whole series of other variables, such as empowerment of women, development, political power, advocacy, beginning to right some of the injustices of existing systems, political, social, economic; that’s the idea – to go beyond hunger. It’s a much bigger agenda and we can do it, because we’re all set to go. We have the resources, and we can be flexible because we have unrestricted funds; we don’t work at the whim of government or major donors; we are strategy makers rather than strategy takers. We have a commitment to be agents of the poor if they want us to; we can stimulate them and encourage them to find the interior motivation to change their lives. That’s part of the answer to “beyond hunger.”

We’re tapping into Heifer’s roots as we celebrate all across the nation in our Beyond Hunger program. I went to Castañer, Puerto Rico, [where some of the early heifers were sent], and what’s left of the work Heifer did in that little town is this: it has held on to the fundamental values about how to be responsible for its own welfare, and so it has a set of democratic practices to hold itself accountable. It established boards for the school, boards for the hospital, and for 70 years has been working on its own responsibilities and a way of looking at how it manages its assets for its own benefit. And it’s evident. Very, very evident. And I think it comes out of the Heifer Project, how it got started. There’s a history, there’s a wisdom, there’s a level of gratitude for what Heifer gave them that is palpable from the children and grandchildren of the people who were first touched by Heifer.

Me: That’s a wonderful example of going “beyond hunger.” What excites you most about Heifer’s work today?

Pierre: It’s building on this huge history of 70 years worth of community self-reliance and autonomy. With that asset, that wisdom, if a community wants to, we can begin to leverage and help it extend its reach and activity into the marketplace or wherever it is that it wants to extend. There’s a very profound power in collective action. Our community development taps into that, engages that, at no cost. We help communities gain collective understanding towards a commitment and then say, okay, here are some things you can do if your community is interested. And generally, they are. I’ve yet to come across a community that says, no, we’ll just hang out. We’re doing good at this level. Which is fine if they wanted to do that, but we don’t get that response. Even if they cross the poverty level to some level of dignity, there’s always more – better roads, better schools, better water. People have dreams: better homes, university education, and whatever it is.

Me: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces to get that work accomplished?

Pierre: Resources are obviously one, right? But we are very blessed to have stable resources. Although I named it first, resources aren’t our principal challenge. We’re headquartered in Little Rock, in the northern hemisphere, and the practice of the aid sector is to be very technocratic and impose – and I hate that word – but impose solutions; and so some of the culture [at Heifer] is sometimes this, why is it that they don’t adopt things that we obviously think they need? So even though our culture is oriented towards our Twelve Cornerstones [watch for these in another post], how do we ensure that we allow communities to have agency for their own decisions? This is a challenge. Success is getting communities we work with to commit themselves and getting them to help themselves get out of poverty; it’s staying flexible and seeing ourselves as helpers rather than doers. That’s the biggest challenge. To see ourselves as helpers, not doers.

I’ll give you an anecdote. I was in Guatemala, up in the hills talking with farmers who were doing quite well from our perspective. Towards the end of the day of our visit, we sat down for a presentation that was made about the numbers, and the data, and what had been achieved. It was very well done. And when I reviewed the day with staff at dinner later that day, I said, it was a great day, and much has been accomplished, but there was one false note in all this: that the presentation about the success of the movement and the progress the community has made was made by our staff. I said, that’s just not right. I said to the guy that made the presentation, I’m not criticizing your presentation skills. That’s not the issue. I said, why is it that the community allowed you to make a presentation about them? What’s going on? I hope that the project is all about the community doing it and not us doing it.

Me: What significance does Heifer’s history have for its work today? How does its history inform the amazing work it continues to do all over the world?

Pierre: I think I mentioned the self-reliance, autonomy, and commitment to the interior change for which Heifer works. And I think this springs out of the spiritual roots of Heifer Project, which is from the Church of the Brethren and Christian. At a spiritual/metaphysical level, I think all religions are about interior change, right? So there it is, you know: when you commit yourself to interior change, then everything is possible.

Me: Anything else you would like my readers to know?

Pierre: This is going to sound a little bit like a fundraising appeal, but here’s what I think is important: that the long-term support for the Heifer Project continues from the everyday donors, so that we can have confidence that we can continue to speak truth to power and that we can look at and challenge systems that are not functioning well and that perpetuate oppression and poverty. We need this support to insure the level of independence that we have, an independence that is deeply needed in development. It allows us to be one of the voices that say, the government policies, the USAID policies, and their staff eventually make the problem worse. Too many of the people that we work with – I don’t mean the project partners, I mean some of the other aid organizations – are captured by the very system that perpetuates it; and so our level of financial independence and long-term commitment is important. It’s what gives us the courage, the vision, and the activism to always be our best selves. It’s not about Gate’s money, it’s not about a major donor, it’s actually the half-million small donors that give to us consistently – that’s the unspoken, vital power of Heifer Project.

Me: That’s a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much, Pierre. And a hearty thanks to you and your staff for your good work at Heifer International, an organization that continues to capture the hearts of those who support it and to provide a more positive and sustainable future for those who benefit from its many programs.

Next post: Snippets from the Beyond Hunger Northern Indiana event taking place this weekend.

Heifer Project’s First Seagoing Cowboy


It’s impossible to tell the seagoing cowboy story without also telling the story of the Heifer Project, the forerunner to today’s Heifer International. The seagoing cowboy program and the Heifer Project were linked through their relationship to the Brethren Service Committee, the outreach arm of the Church of the Brethren, begun in 1941. (More about that connection in another post.)

The Heifer Project was the brain child of Church of the Brethren staff worker and gentleman farmer Dan West. He was sent to Spain in 1937 to help in a Quaker relief project during the Spanish Civil War. After observing inadequate supplies of reconstituted powdered milk being doled out to infants with those not gaining weight being taken off the list to die, West came home to his Indiana farm in early 1938 with the idea of sending cows to Spain. With “a cow, not a cup,” people would be able to help themselves.

Dan West

Dan West, founder of Heifer International. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

For four years, West relentlessly promoted this idea to neighbors, church members, church leaders, and government officials. Finally, in April 1942, the Church of the Brethren Men’s Work of Northern Indiana adopted his plan, which in a short time became a national program of the Brethren Service Committee known as “The Heifer Project.”

(A heifer by Dan West’s definition is “a cow-not-yet,” that is, a cow before it gives birth to its first calf. Pronounced heffer.)

A grassroots effort from the start, local committees were formed and heifers were donated and raised. But World War II was raging, and the animals couldn’t be shipped to Spain. So the first shipment went to Puerto Rico where the Brethren had a Civilian Public Service unit, the Martin G. Brumbaugh Reconstruction Unit, that put conscientious objectors to work during the war in one of the poorest sections of the island.

First Heifer Project shipment, June 1944

                                                Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

Eighteen heifers were collected at the Nappanee, Indiana, stockyards on June 7, 1944, 70 years ago this summer. The fifteen Guernseys, two Jerseys, and one Milking Shorthorn were given shots for shipping fever and on June 12 were loaded into a ventilated box car partitioned for cattle. Four days later, they arrived by train in Mobile, Alabama, along with their caretaker, Marvin Senger, the first paid staff person of the Heifer Project. On June 26, Senger was joined by Wayne Hostetler, a young Brethren farmer from Orrville, Ohio, who was the volunteer administrator for the Northern Ohio Heifer Project Committee. Senger returned home, and Hostetler became Heifer’s first seagoing cowboy before there was such a designation, making the trip to Puerto Rico at his own expense.

Shipping delays kept the heifers at the stockyards in Mobile for nearly a month. The day the heifers arrived, one gave birth to a bull calf at the stockyards, then became sick five days later. She was kept behind at the nearby farm of the Brethren Petcher family to recover, while her calf took her place on the SS William D. Bloxham, a brand new Liberty ship making its first voyage. (More about Liberty ships in a later post.)

In Mobile, Hostetler obtained his Merchant Marine papers making him a “Seaman with cattle man rating, salary 1 cent per month,” a formality to make it legal for him to work on the ship. On his return to Indiana, Marvin Senger reported to the Heifer Project Committee that the Brethren Service Committee was charged $15.00 for Hostetler’s fare. “Signed for $5000 life insurance,” he told them, “to be paid by the government in case ship is destroyed and Wayne should lose his life due to enemy action.”

These were dangerous times to be shipping cattle.

Next post: Hostetler’s report to the Heifer Project Committee on his return. As recorded by the secretary, it begins: “He was glad for the trip, but doubtful that he would have promised if he had had a whole day to think it over.”

Sources for Hostetler’s story: “Heifers for Relief” Newsletter Number 1, July 28, 1944; Heifer Project Committee Minutes, July 9, 1944.


Join me on my seagoing cowboy journey!

Seagoing Cowboys!

The term itself makes one curious, draws one in. Who were they? What did they do? My own curiosity began with an envelope of my grandfather’s photos given to me by my father after my grandpa died. Growing up in the Church of the Brethren, I knew about seagoing cowboys; but I didn’t know my Grandpa Abe had been one of them. In September 1946, at age 49, he sailed to Poland on the SS Pierre Victory with a load of 774 horses. This shipment was part of a program run by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help countries devastated by World War II recover and rebuild.

Seagoing Cowboy Abraham Reiff

Grandpa Abe and fellow cowboys on the SS Pierre Victory, October 1946

The story hiding in grandpa’s photos meshed with a growing interest I had in writing a young adult novel. What a great topic! I thought. I could write about the journey of a young seagoing cowboy to Poland. Little did I know what a journey the pursuit of this project would become for me!

My curiosity led me to a former pastor, Rev. Al Guyer, who I knew had been a seagoing cowboy to Poland. Maybe I could learn from him what Grandpa’s trip might have been like, I thought.

Al’s story drew me in.

Seagoing Cowboys leave home

Al Guyer and Jack Baker prepare to leave home for the journey of a life time in November 1945.  Source: Albert Guyer

That interview was in January 2002, right before our family moved from Maryland to Northern Indiana, smack dab in the middle of seagoing cowboy country where the story of the related Heifer Project, today’s Heifer International, began. My passion for the story grew with every cowboy I interviewed and I’ve been uncovering, documenting, writing, and speaking about this little-known history ever since. It turned out to be a much larger story than I had anticipated, taking me all across the country to interview cowboys and visit various archives, including those of the United Nations, Heifer International, the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonites.

Peggy Reiff Miller researching seagoing cowboy history

Digging for information in the Heifer International archives.

Most recently, my research has taken me to Germany and Poland where I was able to see where the seagoing cowboys had been and meet recipients of animals delivered in 1945 to Poland and in 1950 to Germany.

Peggy Reiff Miller meets with Reichswald settlers in Germany who received heifers from the Heifer Project.

In September 2013, I met with 11 Reichswald settler families in Germany who received heifers in 1950 from the Heifer Project. My interpreter and friend Ingrid Marx is on my right. Photo credit: Hannelore Erkens


Peggy Reiff Miller meets with the Stanislaw Debert family in Pruszcz Gdanski, Poland.

I had a joyous meeting with the Stanislaw Debert family in Pruszcz Gdanski, Poland, in October 2013. Stanislaw received a heifer from the Heifer Project and two horses from UNRRA in late 1945. Photo credit: Magda Starega

So what about my novel?

Finding Charity, which has long since been drafted and gone through three major revisions, is resting. Along the way, I realized it was a nonfiction book about the seagoing cowboys that was needed and wanted by the cowboys, as well as a book about the beginnings of the Heifer Project. So that has become my priority. I have a children’s picture book, Grandpa Was a Seagoing Cowboy, under contract with Brethren Press; and I’ll keep you posted on its progress. But for now, the point I’m at is sifting through a roomful of accumulated research materials to find the stories for my nonfiction books.

Peggy Reiff Miller's office

Lots and lots of files to process!

l’ll be sharing pieces of this history here as I go. I hope you’ll join me on my journey.

[My intention is to post every second and fourth Friday or Saturday. I invite you to become a regular follower.]