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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 Mitchell.

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 "Lehrerleut."

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 I know."

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 on hand.

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."

High-tech operation

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 fact, Jack."

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."

Bird business

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 processors.

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.

Technology embraced

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 productivity.

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 as well.

"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 of tomorrow.

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.

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