Faith and Finances: Today's Hutterites do More Than Farm to Stay Afloat

Aksamit, Nichole. "Faith and Finances: Today's Hutterites do More Than Farm to Stay Afloat." Forum, 17 November 1999, sec. A1 & A7.

The modest women of Spring Prairie Colony share a quiet moment in the early morning sun on a trailer behind a tractor headed for a cucumber field northwest of Hawley, Minnesota.

Spring Prairie Colony, Minn.

It's butchering day at this Hutterite colony northwest of Hawley, but there are no axes, no bloodied tree stumps, no chickens running around with their heads cut off.

Instead, two dozen women, half a dozen men, a handful of boys and a USDA meat inspector don rubber aprons and take their places as a system of moving metal hangers hauls the chickens into the butches shop.

A man in a hard hat slits the birds' throats with an electric knife as the hanging conveyers move toward a cauldron of boiling water. The chickens are scalded and dumped into a vat with rubber "fingers" that gyrate to remove the feathers.

A pneumatic clipper, run by on of the men (as almost all machines here are) makes a loud "sht-sht" sound as it snips off the birds' feet and wingtips.

The chickens tumble down a ramp where young women use paring knives and nimble fingers to pry loose the stubborn pinfeathers and any other the machines missed.

Another man lops off the birds' heads with a knife and hooks them on the moving hanger system that takes them through the gutting process.

The USDA inspector watches as the women turn the birds and pull out their insides.

"We butcher about once every five weeks," says Eva Wipf, a 27-year-old Hutterite. "It's not our favorite thing, but it's not so bad and it's over pretty quick."

For their own use, the Hutterites fill several 25-pound bags of cutup fryers - mostly the salvageable parts of birds that couldn't be sold whole at market because of broken legs, broken wings or other defects.

And about 1,320 whole fryers go to market in bags that read: "Prairie's Pride, Young Fryer, Spring Prairie Farm."

What used to take a whole day and the help of the whole colony now requires less than three hours and three dozen people.

It's a fully modernized, inspected processing plant that takes 1,400 chickens from barn to freezer in a matter of two hours and 45 minutes.

Blend of old and new

Although Hutterites at Spring Prairie retain a conservative Christian philosophy and lifestyle, they have kept pace with technology to stay afloat in the modern farm economy.

In an era of increasing taxes and decreasing commodity prices, they have had to diversity and modernize their farming operations to survive.

The colonists at Spring Prairie raise corn, barley, wheat, soybeans, sunflowers, canola and alfalfa on about 3,000 acres near the colony site. They use much of the corn as feed for the turkeys, chickens, hogs and cows they raise both for their own use and to sell. They are a supplier of turkeys for Jennie-O Foods, milk for Cass-Clay Creamery and pork for John Morrell.

In addition to the young fryers they process every five weeks, the colonists sell smoked chickens, ring bologna, bacon, turkey jerky, eggs, homemade jam, feather pillows and comforter and honey. They package Christmas gift baskets for area companies.

And they raise huge gardens of vegetables and fruits for canning, wine-making and fresh consumption by the brotherhood.

Beyond the farming operation, the colony operates Spring Prairie Printing, a bookbindery and print shop that prints Hutterite school curriculum materials, hymnals and history books - all in German.

The shop also does outside jobs like auction sale bills and restaurant menus, and it recovers used textbooks for area schools.

The colony also has its own feed mill and weigh station, maintenance shop, carpenter shop and an electric motor shop, which repairs alternators and small engines for the colony and outside patrons.

Big Enterprise, Little Profit

Taken together, these various enterprises might sound like a giant endeavor for 125 souls.

They are and they require a huge amount of hard work to pull off, says John Waldner Sr., the elder minister of this colony. But they are not huge moneymakers; they merely keep the colony afloat.

As the population of a Hutterite colony outgrows the colony site, the brotherhood looks for another piece of land where it can branch out. The ideal site is marginal farmland several miles from major roads.

With land prices and property taxes such as they are, finding and being able to purchase such land without going into debt is nearly impossible, Waldner says.

This year, Spring Prairie Colony took out a loan for a farm and roughly 3,000 acres in Wilkin County, near Barnesville, Minn., just south of the Clay County line.

Waldner says the colony isn't planning to branch out anytime soon. It's just that the land was appropriate for the colony's needs and available in a period of low interest rates. They are leasing the land to a farmer in the meantime to help pay their mortgage.

Farming, Waldner notes, is a business with a very small margin of profit and it's no easier for the colonies to do it than individual farmers. In fact, it may be more difficult for Hutterites.

"We are 31 families with about 3,000 acres," he says. "It takes good planning just to stay above water.

"I don't believe that we'll ever be without farming. But, of course, the Hutterites have had to diversify. There are colonies that have a bigger stake in manufacturing than in farming."

Waldner stresses that Hutterites don't live together for financial or economic reasons, but rather because of the teaching of the Bible.

"Our living together is solely because of the teaching of the testament," he says.

And he says they have diversified their economic activity only to ensure survival of their religious, communal way of life.

Every five weeks, the men and women of Spring Prairie Colony butcher and process 1,200 to 1,400 chickens.
A combine rumbles through a field of canola west of the colony.

Farming is only one source of income for the 125 people who live at Spring Praire Colony

Reprinted with permission of The Forum

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