Some observers might assume that nothing exciting ever happens in a hog barn, but the regular, daily work of raising pigs is an important part of Hutterite life. At least it is with some Manitoba Hutterites at the Starlite Colony near Starbuck, Manitoba, just west of Winnipeg, which a couple interns from the Winnipeg Free Press visited this summer. Paul Gackle focused a lengthy newspaper article on a typical day in the life of James Hofer, the manager of hog operations at the Starlight Colony, and his family. The other intern, Sarah Kearney, took the photographs that accompany the story.
The author emphasizes the incredible regularity of life at the colony. People arise punctually in the morning, eat together in the colony dining hall, and go to sleep promptly in order to keep on schedule. The women get up at 6:00 to begin preparing breakfast for the colony, which is eaten together in the dining hall when the men get there at 7:13 a.m. By 7:30 the men are heading back to their homes to prepare for the work of the day, the women to the kitchen to wash the dishes. The author follows the men’s work.
Mr. Hofer and his sons devote the half hour after breakfast to meditation, prayer, and reading the Bible. “It gets you in the right frame of mind for the day, gives you something positive to think about… Spirituality starts up here,” he says, touching his temple.
Gackle talks with Hofer about materialism in Hutterite colonies. Many distracting luxury goods such as televisions, radios, new fashions, and cosmetics are not allowed. They might distract individuals from contemplating God, and they could foster immorality and selfishness. The Hofers maintain that their happiness is based on the family and the colony. “You sacrifice your own will, your desires, for the desires of the church and community,” Mr. Hofer adds.
Nonetheless, the children in the family find ways of tuning in to the doings of the outside world, at least to some extent. Shane, the 14-year old son, manages to follow the games of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the local ice hockey team, but he admits, “they always lose.” The kids are allowed to roam after dinner, and they can sneak onto neighboring properties to watch a bit of professional sports on a TV. “We’re only human,” says one youngster.
At the stroke of 8:00, the father and his three older sons, aged 19, 16, and 14, head out to the hog barn to begin their work for the day. The author chronicles in detail how they inseminate the sows, move them to gestation stalls 35 days later, move them to a farrowing barn 115 days after insemination, wean the piglets 26 days after birth, re-inseminate the sows 119 days later, and so on. Everything runs like clockwork—insemination, birthing, and shipping pigs off to market 160 days after they are born. “The clock never stops ticking,” the author concludes.
Gackle extols the efficiency of the hog operation: modern feeding systems, automated scales that weigh each pig daily, and a carefully regulated climate control system. Every 20 minutes, each gestating sow gets a three-minute timed shower from a sprinkler system. Unlike the Amish, who share their Anabaptist heritage, the Hutterites embrace technology that will make their working operations more efficient.
The author’s visit to the colony began when he met some Hutterites at a legislative committee hearing about a provincial bill that would outlaw new hog operations in the Red River Valley. The intent of the bill is to cut down on pollutants that are entering Lake Winnipeg. But the bill, if it becomes law, would also harm the economies of the Hutterite colonies in the province, particularly new ones. The author visited the Starlite Colony to observe a hog operation.
But the article is much broader than just the work in the barns. Mr. Hofer describes gender relations in the colony, a topic that often interests outsiders. He describes how the bride always moves into the colony of her husband, which is just a Hutterite tradition, not a conscious effort to subordinate women, he maintains. “I always tell a girl when she gets married. You’re giving up your last name, not your first name. You’re not ‘the wife…’ you are Sheila, Thelma or Dorothy,” he says.
Mr. Hofer’s favorite time each day is during the afternoon break, when he and his family get together for a snack in their family kitchen. Since they don’t eat their regular meals together, it is the only opportunity they have to relax with one another. The couple tells the author that they met at her colony and hung out together during several of his visits until he asked her to marry him. Mrs. Hofer mentions that frequently there are limited opportunities for romance in the colonies, and that inbreeding can be a real concern.
Son Jamie, 19 years old, says he has had a girl friend since he was 17, though he has had other girl friends. “Some guys like trucks, some like football, I like girls…it’s in the Hofer blood,” he tells the visitor. On a trip to another colony, he found his current girlfriend. “I went fishing and caught a girl,” he says.
He describes his dating experiences. “You go for a walk, hold hands… maybe you give her a little kiss…. But you only call a girl your girlfriend if you can truly say you love her from the bottom of your heart.”
But the young man is not yet ready to marry. He would have to be baptized first, a step which he is not ready for. “Every day is a struggle to overcome the flesh and live in the spirit,” he indicates. “I still do things sometimes that I know I shouldn’t do…like go into Starbucks at night and drink beer.” When he overcomes his internal struggles, he will probably settle down, baptize into the faith, marry, and continue Hutterite traditions by helping to raise his own family.