Colony Mixes Tradition, Technology
Young, Steve. "Colony Mixes Tradition, Technology." Argus Leader, 17 November 2003.
NEW ELM SPRINGS COLONY - On a mild autumn afternoon not long ago,
a hulking Case International Harvester prowled through a Hutchinson
County cornfield, guided by satellite technology and driven by a disciple
of the Apostle Paul.
Inside the cab, a computer screen instantly revealed the yield
per acre, the moisture content of the harvested corn - even the
exact location of the combine within the field.
But more intriguing was the farmer in the Old World garb behind
the wheel of a machine that can cost $100,000 new.
"That's the amazing thing about the Hutterites out in South
Dakota," said Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center
for Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
"You have a fascinating and also baffling split in their world
between, on the one hand, a medieval, religious-world outlook and,
on the other hand, their embracing of and use of high-tech equipment."
It is an odd but not so uncommon sight in South Dakota, where 6,000
Hutterites living in communes and clinging to old-country traditions
have used 21st century technology to become a powerful engine in
the state's agriculture economy.
Today they inhabit 53 settlements across eastern South Dakota and
together represent almost $500 million of agriculture's $18.2 billion
contribution to the South Dakota economy.
Typical of those colonies is New Elm Springs, 60 miles west of
Sioux Falls, where 88 adults and children all named Wollmann or
Tschetter go to school, share the labor, conduct centuries-old worship
services daily and realize an annual net profit of between $200,000
and $300,000 among the 17 families living there.
"We're no different than anyone else," said Mike Tschetter
Sr., the colony's minister and its highest authority. "We pay
our taxes - property taxes, income taxes - just like everyone else.
And the same things that affect other farmers - prices, weather
- affect us."
All of which is true. Yet a day on the colony, filled with its
rituals and orderliness, reveals that much about the Hutterites
makes them unique as well.
A life apart
New Elm Springs is a 4,800-acre settlement 20 miles southeast of
It originally was inhabited by a Hutterite group called Lehrerleut.
When they arrived in America in 1874, the Hutterites came in three
groups: Schmiedleut, Dariusleut and Lehrerleut - leut meaning "people."
Each group was named for its respective leader. Michael Waldner
was a blacksmith, so his people became "Schmiedleut,"
or the blacksmith's people. The followers of Darius Walter were
called "Dariusleut." And another leader, Jacob Wipf, was
a teacher, or "lehrer" in German, so his people were called
When World War I broke out, all three Hutterite groups left for
Canada. When they returned in 1936, a group of Schmiedleut that
included Tschetter's relatives moved onto the old Lehrerleut colony
that was New Elm Springs.
Today, that colony typically awakens each morning around 6:30 -
a half-hour later on Sundays and holidays. By 7 a.m., the colony
dining hall clatters and clinks as the masses sit down to breakfast.
In the Hutterite order, the children eat separately at the north
end of the dining hall. In the main eating area, the men and women
are separated as well - men to the east, women to the west.
The farm boss sits at the southeast corner of the dining hall.
The men fill in the seats to his right according to age, beginning
with the oldest. The same is true with the women. The oldest female
sits in the southwest corner of the dining hall, with the others
filling in to her left according to age.
"It's just a tradition; you have to keep order some way,"
explained Tschetter, who as minister eats alone in his home. Asked
why he does that, he answered, "It's been that way ever since
Within 15 minutes of the first eggs being served, breakfast is
done, the dishes are cleared, and the colony's members head off
to school or their daily duties.
For Levi Wollmann, the walk to work takes him to a spartan office
off the farrowing unit on the west side of the colony.
Wollmann is the hog boss, a position he was elected to by the other
men in the colony and one that has him in charge of 6,000 York-Landrace-Duroc
pigs at any given moment.
That's a large operation by South Dakota standards. Of the 1,500
hog operations in the state, 80 percent have 1,000 head or fewer
Wollmann, a large man with brown hair and a brown beard, has a
dry sense of humor that he likes to punctuate with the phrase, "That's
the fact, Jack."
It's his duty to artificially inseminate the colony's 800 sows
and to keep immaculate records on each one of them.
With his computer printouts, he knows every shot every sow has
ever had. He knows how many litters they've had, how many pigs were
in each litter, when they were impregnated and when they delivered.
It's all part of a swine operation that results in as many as 350
hogs being shipped to markets at John Morrell & Co. in Sioux
Falls and Swift in Worthington, Minn., every week.
That's 18,000 market hogs a year, all weighing between 230 and
265 pounds, Wollmann said.
Even with three part-time helpers, he said he has to work seven
days a week, 10 hours a day, to keep up with it.
"I take two to three days off a year," he said as he
sits at his office desk. Tschetter, the minister, quickly added
from the sofa nearby, "You know you can go to hell for lying."
Wollmann smiled and then turned serious again. The key to making
hogs at New Elm Springs profitable is efficiency, he said. That
means using the kind of genetics that produce the largest litters
- the New Elm Springs sows average 24.3 pigs in 20 litters a year
- the least amount of fat, and the most muscle, from which the meat
is taken, he said.
Tschetter said colonies like his learn about the best genetics
from the company that sells them their semen for creating new sows.
"What we try to do is upbreed our hogs for what Morrell is
looking for and asking for," Tschetter said. "We ask the
producer how to bring up the percentages on the things Morrell wants,
and we do that. We go to seminars sometimes, too, and to study groups."
Efficiency in New Elm Springs' hog operations also comes through
a heavy reliance on computers to run the daily operation. When he
arrives in the morning, Wollmann said the sows have already been
fed. A computer turns the lights on. It fills the feeders. It sends
water trickling through pipes so the hogs can drink. And it does
it all over again at suppertime.
A computer also regulates the temperature in the farrowing cribs,
in the nursery and in the finishing barns. If it is too stuffy inside
the barns, a computer will open and close vinyl curtains on the
sides to allow in fresh air.
The colony realizes efficiency by fabricating much of the equipment
in its hog confinement system, from its own farrowing crates to
the pens in which the hogs are kept - even building the barns.
"Everything that's above ground in these barns, we did ourselves,"
Tschetter said. To which Wollmann quickly added, "That's a
Once a sow has her litter, the pigs will stay with her for 18 days
in the farrowing unit, lying on heating pads that are kept at a
constant 96 degrees.
At about 16 pounds, the pigs are transferred to the nursery, where
they stay an average of 38 days, Wollmann said. When they are between
35 and 50 pounds, they are moved to one of two finishing barns a
half mile south of the colony compound.
Those barns are kept separate from the nursery and farrowing units
in large part to cut down on the dramatic effect of diseases should
they ever infect the hogs.
Up to 2,200 hogs are housed in each finishing barn until they reach
their market weight.
Wollmann said almost 90 percent of his hogs go to Morrell's; the
rest go to Swift. He pays about a dollar a head to ship 180 of them
in one truck the 60 miles to Sioux Falls. That's a little more than
the standard $2.25 a mile that truckers typically get for hauling
a full cargo, "but we're such a short distance from Morrell's,
we can afford to pay a little better," Wollmann said.
In the end, he figures it takes 35 cents a pound to break even
on the colony's investment in its hogs. This year, he's averaging
41.63 cents per pound.
"So at seven cents a pound, our profit will be around $315,000,"
Wollmann said. "And next year, we're going to be even bigger.
We're going to expand from 800 to 1,100 sows. Instead of loading
350 hogs a week, we'll load 400."
East across the colony, another significant New Elm Springs agricultural
venture plays out on a daily basis. Every five weeks, turkey boss
Brian Wollmann brings in 16,000 day-old turkeys that he and two
others will raise for 19 weeks before shipping them to out-of-state
The birds come from a company called Pals in Willmar, Minn. In
the course of a year, the colony will order 175,000 of them.
"We lose about 10 percent," Brian Wollman said. "Between
heart attack, stress and straddle legs, where their legs come out
of their bodies sideways, that's how we lose them."
The day-old turkeys begin in the starter barn, where they arrive
to a 100-degree temperature that gradually drops to 80 degrees by
the time they are 4 weeks old.
Again, the colony uses computers to mix medications in with the
birds' water and send it down PVC line to feeders. Those medicines
protect the turkeys from colds, flu and other diseases to which
humans expose them.
Once they are past 4 weeks, the birds are moved to finishing barns
that are between 400 and 600 feet long. At any given time, each
of the four barns is filled with 14,500 of the white Nicholas breed
of turkeys - all cackling and crowing in a moving sea of feathers,
combs and feet.
One barn has a batch of 7-week-old turkeys. In another, they are
all 10 weeks old. And yet another has 15-week-old toms.
When the turkeys are 19 weeks old and weigh 38 to 40 pounds, Wollmann
and his two assistants enlist the help of other colony members,
including children, to load them onto conveyor belts and into trucks
so they can be shipped to a processor in Storm Lake, Iowa.
"To break even, we have to get 30 to 32 cents a pound,"
Wollmann said. "We're getting 37.82 cents a pound now, and
that is an exceptionally good year."
When all is said and done, he added, the colony should realize
a $400,000 profit on the birds.
Hogs and turkeys are the big money makers for New Elm Springs.
The colony also grows corn, soybeans and wheat, though the 300,000
bushels of corn it raises this year will all go to feeding its livestock.
Tom Wollman is the farm manager at New Elm Springs in charge of
everything from planting, to the purchase and use of fertilizer,
pesticides and herbicides, to the harvest.
With the assistance of three to four other colony members, he planted
2,200 acres of corn this season, 1,550 acres of soybeans and 550
acres of wheat.
The corn all gets ground into feed. And while the soybeans will
get sold at market, "we sell the raw soybean and buy back the
bean meal for protein for our livestock," Tom Wollmann said.
"We'll end up buying back more than we sell of soybeans."
Though the corn doesn't leave the premises, Wollmann still has
to "charge" his turkey and hog bosses for his crop.
"The way I figure it, whatever I would get at the elevator
for my corn, and a little bit for hauling it, that's the figure
I have to get," he said. "I charge them once a year. It's
all on paper, but the federal crop people want to know."
Wollmann estimates his cost of production for soybeans at $76 an
acre after he figures in seed, planting, fertilizer, chemicals and
harvesting. For corn, it's $110 to $115 an acre. And for wheat,
it is $85 an acre. There also are payments on building and land
loans that take 6 to 7 percent out of the per-bushel amount they
earn on those crops.
So roughly speaking, he said, when those amounts are subtracted
from what he expects to get per bushel of corn, soybeans and wheat
this year, the colony should make $279,400 on its corn crop, $186,000
on its soybean crop and $40,975 on its wheat.
Of course, almost all of those proceeds go into feeding the turkeys
and hogs, so no one is getting rich on his colony, Tschetter insisted.
But then the materialism that springs from wealth is something that
the Hutterites have never pursued anyway.
At New Elm Springs, the women sew almost all of the clothes. The
pantries off of the dining hall are filled with hundreds of jars
of pickles, tomato juice and other canned goods. And the houses
are furnished with furniture and cabinets made by Hutterites.
Despite that frugality, the colony is more than willing to spend
money on machinery and technology that will boost its agricultural
It owns 10 vehicles - a Chevy Suburban, two Chevy vans, five four-wheeled
pickups and two small pickup trucks. It also has two semitrailers,
a semi-tractor, a tandem truck and a feed truck.
It even has its own fire truck.
New Elm Springs has sizable mechanic, carpentry and blacksmith
shops as well. It has industrial-strength washers and dryers in
its laundry facility, too. Its kitchen has the most modern of electric
ovens and freezers. And at any given moment, a handful of colony
members chatter away in an archaic form of High German on their
cell phones or citizen's band radios.
Likewise, the colony uses computers to track livestock and crop
prices. The children can access them in school as well for word
processing and pulling up resources on the Internet, though they
aren't allowed to independently browse the Web.
By age 15, when their formal education in the colony school ends,
young boys and girls have already spent considerable time working
with adults in the carpentry shop, the machine shop or the kitchen.
Tschetter spent years as the colony blacksmith before becoming
its minister. His son, Mike Jr., inherited that job from his father.
The colony butcher, Mike Wollmann, spent 30 years working with
New Elm Springs' hogs. Now, at age 56, he nets the colony $150,000
a year in retail business by butchering everything from deer to
turkeys, buffalo to ducks, in his state-inspected butcher shop.
Customers travel to the colony from as far away as Sioux Falls
to buy smoked pheasants and hams, geese, even sheep. Wollmann said
his colony sells meat to area restaurants in Parkston and Mitchell
"We're always advertising in the Rocket, the Parkston shopper,"
he said. "I'd estimate that we have 300 to 400 individual customers
come in during the year."
New Elm Springs also makes a little money with its vegetable garden.
Farmers come onto the colony to buy produce, Tschetter said. And
sometimes colony residents will deliver sweet corn or pumpkins to
vegetable stands in Mitchell, for example, he said.
"It's not a lot of money; $3,000 would be high for us for
the vegetables we sell," he said.
But every little bit helps, Tschetter said. For despite net profits
in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for its turkeys and hogs,
soybeans and butchering shop, New Elm Springs still has utilities
to pay and health insurance to provide. They can't grow everything
they eat; they can't sew every piece of clothing.
"I'd say that $200,000 to $300,000 figure I told you earlier
adequately represents our net income in a year," Tschetter
said as he stands near a colony cornfield and pulls the black hat
off his head, swiping it several times across his white hair.
In the distance, the giant Case International Harvester is chewing
up rows of corn. And at his feet, his 3-year-old grandson, Abraham
Tschetter, plays with his own toy tractor.
It is an image wrapped in symbolism - from the clothes of the child
and the old man representing centuries of Hutterite tradition, to
the harvester representing the colony's heavy reliance on the tools
From the very dawn of their existence, Tschetter said, Hutterite
men and women have covered their heads with scarves and hats.
"It's our tradition to wear head covers," he said. "The
Apostle Paul said we should wear a head covering, so we do."
Another sign of the strongly rooted traditions and rituals at New
Elm Springs is their practice of piety. Devotions are said every
evening at 6 in the sanctuary off the dining hall. And church services
are held at 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Sundays.
"When you are in their worship services, they are literally
reading devotions that were written in the 16th century that were
said the exact same way," Donald Kraybill of the Young Center
for Anabaptist Studies said. "And the amazing thing is, they'll
leave the service, walk outside and step right into a state-of-the-art
combine, and suddenly they're living in a different world."
That is the irony of the Hutterites, living their ancient ways
in the midst of global positioning systems and computer printouts,
in a high-tech land that has turned them into something powerful
and unique on the South Dakota landscape.
That's the world that children such as Abraham Tschetter are barreling
into, even as the traditions and rituals and orderliness of his
past try to slow him down.
"He has to kick up his onions," his grandfather said
as the rambunctious little boy in the plaid shirt and suspenders
ran his toy combine across the back seat of the Suburban.
Some day, this young disciple of the Apostle Paul will be behind
the wheel of the real thing.
The engine that is South Dakota's agriculture economy - and the
faithful of the New Elm Springs Colony - are depending on it.
Reprinted with permission of the Argus Leader.