Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hutterite Farms

      I was in Alberta for a sheep meeting a while back, and since we made a family visit/road trip out of it, it seemed a good time and place to look around for Border Collies. One of the ads we called said he had just the dog for me, so out we went.
      The farm was a huge grain and livestock operation on 6,000 acres, with several barns and buildings, and what looked like an apartment complex. There was no farm sign, no clear indication that this was anything but a big ubiquitous Alberta farm. The fellow with the dogs answered our questions, and then seemed quite pleased to grant our request for a short tour. We all went across the road to the main farm complex, and immediately it became apparent that this was a Hutterite farm. All the men were dressed in black, even the boys. No women were in sight. The children quickly swarmed around our vehicle, as curious about us as we were about them.
      Since it was winter, the tour started with their main workplace – the shop. They first showed us their woodworking shop. Then they showed us their pride and joy - a high tech computerized metal fabricating shop to make customized attachments for Bobcats. Many Hutterite colonies have diversified into manufacturing, some have developed value-added farm products, like pancake mixes or wool comforters. The needs to keep men working year round and contributing to the colony as they have adapted farming technologies that reduce labour requirements, and the need for capital to expand their operations, are the drivers behind the diversification into manufacturing.
      After the tour of the workshops, we got into a big farm truck to go feed the cattle. The cattle were sleek and healthy, and were fed a chopped mix of grain and forage. We noticed the absence of a radio in the truck. The influences of the outside world are minimized here, yet they still are on the fore front of any technologies that could enhance their farm.
      The colony also had a large layer operation. We entered the layer barn at the egg handling area. The eggs came in by conveyer belts, automatically picking up the eggs as they were laid and delivering them to be graded, sorted, washed, packed then put into a cooler. The packing area was tiled from floor to ceiling and very clean. We weren’t allowed into the layer barn, but could see inside where the chickens were. The colony also had pigs and meat chickens, and produced all of their own grain, hay and straw. They also had a large garden to produce vegetables for the colony.
Tired, a photo by Kelly Hofer on Flickr
      After I got home I researched Hutterites on the internet, and was particularly impressed by a Flickr site called the “Shutterite”, a young Hutterite’s photos of his colony and their work. Not long after I was looking at the photos, the site became closed to visitors or shut down, and I wondered what happened to the brilliant photographer. Then I opened my Western Producer last week and there were the unmistakable images of Kelly Hofer, laid out in full colour splendour in the center of the widely read farm paper. The article about him mentioned that although his photos have shown his colony in a good light, the religious leaders are not comfortable with the attention this has brought Kelly. Individualism is not encouraged in a Hutterite colony, where everyone works for the good of the group. I was further pleased to see one of Kelly Hofer’s photos on the front page of the National Post only a week after the Western Producer feature. The photo was of a Hutterite girl in traditional dress, sitting in the rim of an enormous tractor tire out in a big farm field. The article that went with it was about Kelly and his life as a Hutterite photographer, and the struggle the Hutterites face balancing adoption of modern technology and adherence to traditional communal values. The article went on to say that Kelly had decided to leave the colony, a personal decision to pursue his gift.
      Whatever people may say about the Hutterite culture, they are among the most successful, productive, innovative farmers in Canada and the US. Hutterites came to North America in the 1800's, encouraged by the promise of religious freedom and the opportunity to grow their pacifist communities. They have somehow managed to blend their old-style communal traditions and strong work ethic with state of the art farm technology, easily adopting cooperative agricultural management and economies of scale to achieve a level of success non-Hutterites sometimes resent. Their colonies are self-contained, with their own schools, churches, abattoirs and all the services a small community would need. They have a communal structure where all assets are shared, none are individually owned, and their traditions are deeply ingrained and rigid.
      Since 1949 when the first colony came to Saskatchewan, they expanded their land holdings to over 2% of all agricultural land in that province, over half a million acres, by 1993. In 2009, Hutterites owned over 40% of all hogs in Manitoba, and over a third of all hogs in Alberta, even though they represented less than 10% of the operations. In South Dakota, Hutterites raise 50-60% of the hogs, in Montana, 90%. Colonies in Montana also produce 98% of the eggs using state-of-the-art equipment. In BC, colonies are in the Peace River area, many raising sheep, cattle and grain.
     These aren’t what some would call family farms, but they are.

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