The Billings, Montana, Gazette has had two noteworthy stories about the Hutterites in the past few weeks. On Monday this week the paper carried a story about the way the United States Postal Service is running passport fairs at Hutterite colonies around the state. Since many Hutterites often travel to Canada to visit family members who have married and settled there, the American Hutterites will have to have passports in order to cross the border as of this coming year.
Anticipating long lines at Post Offices, where new passport applications may be processed in the United States before being forwarded on to the U.S. Passport Office for approval, the U.S. Postal Service decided to establish temporary “passport fairs” at the colonies. If they had insisted that the Hutterites had to come in to the city post offices, the colonies would have been virtually shut down for a day, and the post offices would have had a hard time handling the crowds.
The paper reports that the colonies have been extremely well prepared and organized when the post office employees arrive and set up their processing tables. The applicants, virtually all of the adult members of the colonies, have all had their applications filled in correctly with the necessary photo identifications ready. The postal employees reported that they handled 44 applications at one colony in 90 minutes before going on to the next colony.
A postal service employee commented, “If I had 100 people waiting in line in Great Falls, I guarantee they wouldn’t be that patient.” Objections from a Hutterite colony in Alberta about allowing individual photographs to be taken do not appear to factor into the thinking of the Montana colonies involved with the passport process.
A more significant story in the same newspaper on July 6 discussed the issue of the changing economic structure on one of the more progressive colonies in the state. The story focused on the 12,000-acre Milford colony, located north of Helena in the western part of Montana. The colony has traditionally based its economy on growing winter wheat, barley, oats, and wheat, formerly with horse-drawn machinery and now with highly mechanized equipment. But profits are going down and costs of fuel are going up.
“From what we can see, agriculture is not the future,” one of the men in the colony observes. The colony preacher, John Kleinsasser, agrees. “You just don’t make as much as you did 10 years ago,” he says. So he and some other colony elders decided to work with Brian Reimer, the owner of a Canadian marketing firm whom the colony has known for many years. The colony agreed with Reimer and Pyzique Stone, a company that holds a patent for a type of paving block, to form a joint venture so the Hutterites could purchase equipment and begin the production of the blocks. The manufacturing operation began in March.
“You have to turn to different ways to make money,” Rev. Kleinsasser believes. Reimer provides oversight for the operation and he credits the colony for having people willing to “think outside the box.” The Hutterite men operate machines that load rock, cement, a binding agent, color, and water into a mixer that then injects the mix into molds to form the pavers. Colony men operate the machines, skid loaders, and computer controls, while others stack the blocks to dry. The women paint the finished blocks.
Reimer believes the operation will produce gross sales of $750,000 this year, and perhaps three times that in 2008. Rev. Kleinsasser hopes the process will be productive enough that the colony can quickly pay for its investment in the machinery. Perhaps then the colony will be able to automate production even more. One colony member expresses the hope that the manufacture of pavers will be as profitable as agriculture has been.
But the colony is not going to commit all its resources to the fabrication of pavers. They will continue to sell their farm produce in the same markets as before and they hope that the paver block business will help them prosper as agriculture continues to become less and less profitable. The Hutterites clearly want to retain their isolated, rural, colony-based lifestyle. Progressive colonies that are willing to experiment with new ventures, such as the Milford Colony has done, and find businesses they can adopt should be able to thrive.