Hutterite colony embraces change as ag profits dwindle

2007-07-05T23:00:00Z Hutterite colony embraces change as ag profits dwindleALANA LISTOE Independent Record The Billings Gazette
July 05, 2007 11:00 pm  • 

MILFORD - The Rev. John Kleinsasser remembers when nearly all of the farm work on the Milford Hutterite colony was done with horses.

He worked alongside horse-drawn hay trailers wearing his traditional cultural attire - a long-sleeve collared shirt, black pants and a hat - all hand-made by Sarah, his wife of 43 years, as sweat dripped from his brow.

Today, it's not all horses and men, as technology and machinery now shoulder some of the burden.

Since the colony formed in 1945, agriculture is all it has known.

But times are changing. Agriculture money is drying up, and Milford is pinning its future on machine-made products.

Farming

Every Hutterite colony farms land as one of its main sources of income. The majority of the 12,000-acre Milford colony is farmland about 25 miles off Interstate 15, not too far past Bowman's Corner on Highway 287.

Wheat, barley, oats and winter wheat are rotated depending on need, the year, cost of seed and potential rate of return. The introduction of balers and combines has made the job of the field boss and his crew a speedier one.

"One machine can do what 10 guys could do years ago," said Kleinsasser, who turns 70 this week.

With the rising cost of fuel and inconsistent demands in the market, even traditional folks like Hutterites are looking beyond the hay fields and vegetable gardens for other, more steady income.

"You just don't make as much as you did 10 years ago," Kleinsasser said. "The numbers are bigger, but the profit is a lot less."

"From what we can see, agriculture is not the future," colony gardener Albert Wipf said.

Daily life

The Hutterites date back nearly half a millennium, emerging from the Anabaptist movement around 1525 in Switzerland.

Driven to North America by persecution, the number of Hutterites once declined to nearly 100. Now there are around 36,000 colony members, primarily in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Canada. Montana is home to nearly 45 colonies, with the 35-family Milford colony being the oldest.

Hutterites practice communal living through shared ownership of all property and income. Kleinsasser, the minister and quite possibly the most important person in the colony, says, "I don't own anything, but I own everything. A baby that is born (on the colony) owns just as much as me."

Resisting the modern world and isolating themselves from mainstream America is something the Hutterites have spent hundreds of years mastering.

Trips to town are only by necessity.

Women do not drive.

Men do not cook.

Children attend school at the colony.

And everyone speaks in German, unless speaking to outsiders.

They don't seek converts but rather focus their attention and energy on the children, shaping their hearts and minds to their own way of life.

They go to church every day before the evening meal in the communal dining area and twice on Sundays. Kleinsasser offers sermons in High German, written hundreds of years ago and unchanged.

The small, plain place of worship is free from any decorations, crosses or candles. During services the men and boys sit on one set of pews and the women and girls sit on the other. They sing or chant some prayers; no musical instruments are played. There is no dancing, ever.

Although they do not participate in many governmental activities like serving in the military or on jury duty, they do pay taxes based on their corporation status.

Something new

Unlike most Hutterite colonies in Montana, the forward-thinking individuals from Milford are seeking ways to generate additional revenue.

In March, the colony began manufacturing cinderblock pavers used for barrier walls, garden borders, steps and pathways, barbecues, fountain rings. They're now sold at stores around the state.

Although the combines are still visible making trips up and down the fields, the real efforts have moved indoors, to an industrial hydraulic machine that makes the pavers.

The change began with a handshake with Brian Reimer, owner of a Canadian marketing company who has had a long-standing relationship with the colony and its people. For years, Reimer has sold them farming and agriculture equipment. He witnessed the decline of high market prices for agricultural goods, the rising price of fuel, and the colony's need to seek new revenue means if its members hoped to maintain their secluded, self-sufficient way of life.

The proposal: A joint endeavor between the colony, Reimer and Pyzique Stone, the franchise that patented the shape of the pavers.

The colony's elders voted unanimously to proceed after a handful of meetings among themselves and the rest of the colony men.

"You have to turn to different ways to make money," William Kleinsasser said.

Reimer, who oversees the operation, works with many of the Montana colonies and describes the Milford colony as Hutterites who "think outside of the box."

The process begins with a mixture consisting of just the right proportion of rocks, concrete, water, color additive, and a binding agent. A large mixer machine combines the ingredients, injects them into a mold and moves them along a conveyer belt, making about 7,000 blocks in around six hours.

The men arrive in the paving barn formerly a storage barn for grain and equipment by 6:45 a.m.

William Kleinsasser, 27, is in charge of the mix that makes the pavers, which spit out in about 20 different shapes and colors. He maneuvers the Bobcat, loading the aggregate into a large metal funnel. It is weighed for proper proportion.

Dan Hofer wears a pair of ear protectors while stationed at the computerized control panel. He watches the entire process to ensure the machine is working flawlessly and everyone around it remains safe.

Other men stack the pavers for drying. The blocks must dry for three or four days, which created a space issue at the colony. So they built a 60-by-50-foot drying warehouse. After nearly two weeks, it is already being used.

The women apply the finishing touches, such as paint.

Reimer anticipates the work will generate about a quarter-million dollars in gross sales this year. And he forecasts that will triple next year.

"Our plan short-term is to pay for everything we've invested," William Kleinsasser said.

Beyond that, he would like to see the colony bring in enough revenue to make the process more automated.

"We hope we are going to have big business because everybody is into the pavers," Wipf said. "I think it's going to be just as good as agriculture, even better."

Practical hope

The Hutterites are wise enough to not lump all their eggs into the paver basket.

They'll continue to make the one-hour-plus drive into Helena to sell their harvested goods at the farmer's market and sell hogs to Japan.

The sign that reads "Fryers for sale" at the colony entrance won't come down anytime soon.

Indeed, the old way of life is ever-present.

However, the Milford Colony has put its money, hearts and faith into the hope this venture will prove worthy.

As some remain hopeful, John Kleinsasser can't help but wonder whether it will work.

"It's hard to say what will happen in the future," he said. "The hope is that we make a good income out of it because we need it. Everything is so expensive. You can't make it anymore with agriculture. It's pretty tough to do."

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