Whenever the Hutterites buy another large farm, controversy and resentment swirl in the wake of the sale. “Once it’s sold to the Hutterites it’s gone forever…it’s just not good.” The complaints of this Montana man about the recent sale to the Hutterites of the large Johnson Family farm in Glacier County, near the market town of Cut Bank, expressed some of the prevailing sentiments in the region.
The Hutterites indicate they will probably start two colonies on their new 20,000-acre tract, which, added to the five colonies in the county they already own, gives them a total there of over 77,000 acres of farmland. With the new purchase they now own over 14 percent of the cropland in the county. It is possible to walk from outside Cut Bank practically to the Canadian border without leaving Hutterite lands.
An article in the Great Falls Tribune on March 20, 2005, effectively portrays different facets of local opinions about land sales to the Hutterites. One woman, Keli Murphy, daughter of a local rancher, says the latest sale, “kind of makes me mad…. Young people like myself and my kids, there’s not going to be any land left for them to buy.” For people who don’t want to openly admit to feelings of prejudice against others who dress, speak, act, and live differently from everyone else, the obvious fact that the Hutterite farms will not likely come up for sale again becomes a convenient rationalization for their anger.
The basis for the anger and frustration is that the Hutterites can afford to pay a lot more for the land than others can. A local farmer said that back in January he could offer $300 to $400 per acre for a 1,000-acre tract that was for sale, but he was outbid by the Hutterites offering $550 to $650 per acre. With the very thin operating margins common among ranches in the region, the best prices for land are being paid by agricultural corporations and the Hutterite colonies. Mr. Johnson, the recent seller of the large farm, believes that the future of farming is going to be in bigger and bigger businesses.
Attitudes toward the Hutterites are both negative and positive. Some people express resentment that the Hutterites do not pay taxes, a completely false misconception that is distantly echoed by rural neighbors of the Amish in Pennsylvania. The major economic difference between the Hutterites and the rest of the farmers is the cost of their labor. The farmers pay for hired help; the colonists use the labor of colony members.
The Hutterites are also resented because of the perception that they don’t spend as much locally as other landowners. According to some people, an increase in the number of colonies will spell the death of the local market town, in this case Cut Bank. This argument is advocated, and disputed, depending on whom one talks to. “The Hutterites, they’re not very beneficial to the community,” one man argues, even though he maintains that several of them are his friends. Another man, who works in a local service business, has a similar opinion. “For the size of their communities and as much equipment and money as they transfer around, I really don’t think they transfer it back to the community the way they should,” he says.
However, another local business manager indicates that the Hutterites are steady customers. “I would say they would definitely try us first before they would go even to places in Great Falls,” he says, referring to the nearest city. The newspaper article quotes several other local business people who realize that the colonies of course buy some materials or services in Great Falls, but they also spend a lot locally in Cut Bank. One man told the newspaper that the Hutterites are the foremost donors to the local Red Cross blood drives. Another acknowledged quite fairly that the colonies continue to farm their land rather than enrolling it in government programs that pay farmers to leave their land idle, as so many other landowners do.
To judge by the newspaper article, in fact, some of the residents have a lot of admiration for their Hutterite neighbors. Darrell Peterson, for instance, feels that the Hutterites will certainly take care of the land for the long-term, an important issue for him. When his wife contracted cancer a few years ago, some Hutterite friends stopped by repeatedly to visit, offer their prayers, and bring meals. He clearly appreciates the supportive friendship he’s experienced from the nearby colony.
The director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, Nancy Peterson, herself a farmer, sums up the angst in the Montana farming community. “It’s always extremely difficult to see a generation—after generation after generation on a family farm—have to give it up, for whatever reason,” she said. Current generations of farmers can no longer afford to farm or even to turn their land over to the next generation. Sadness, verging on bitterness, often accompanies the sale of a family farm to a large, faceless agricultural corporation. In contrast, the emotion turns to anger and resentment when the sale is to neighbors—not at all faceless, but very real human beings—who live in highly successful communes and are able to offer more money than anyone else for land.
This story in the Great Falls Tribune is a good example of the problems that Hutterites face in trying to develop peaceful relations with outsiders as they continue to expand. The subject can be explored in more depth in several fine books, available in many libraries, such as Bennett 1967 (p.78-105), Hostetler 1974 (p.255-260), Peter 1987 (p.211-224), and Hostetler and Huntington 1996 (p.102-104).