Montana's harvest of frustration Conflicts: Struggling Montana residents have come to resent the success of JTC tax-exempt Hutterite religious colonies, which have been acquiring acreage as other farms scale back or go broke.

Sun Journal

October 17, 1998|By V. Dion Haynes | V. Dion Haynes,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SHELBY, Mont. -- Bedecked in the same type of straw hat, dark suspenders and black trousers his German ancestors wore, John Wurz seems an anachronism seated at his computer, tapping the keyboard to set the high-tech hog feeder at the sprawling Hillside ranch.

Wurz oversees a multimillion-dollar enterprise for a colony of 120 or so Hutterites, who, like the Amish, maintain an austere communal lifestyle and agrarian traditions. Unlike the Amish, though, the Hutterites embrace modern conveniences.

This thriving enterprise by the Canadian border, and about 45 other Hutterite colonies scattered across Montana, are sore spots for numerous farmers and residents concerned that the growth and success of the tax-exempt colonies are taking valuable farmland out of circulation during difficult economic times.

The friction came to a head in late winter, when a shed full of lumber that was going to be used for a new nearby colony was set afire. It was the third such incident in recent months.

While the Hutterites have gobbled up more land for expansion, ** an increasing number of other farmers have plunged into debt, scaling back or selling farms that in many cases had been in their families for generations.

To be sure, Hutterites also have felt the sting of rising costs and a drop in market prices driven by a glut of foreign produce. Their critics, though, assert that the tax-exempt status Hutterites receive because of their religious affiliation and their pool of communal labor shield them from economic harm.

A retired farmer, Leonard Kaspersma, says the Hutterites helped put him out of business. He says the Hutterites have much lower production costs because of their free labor and because they are exempt from paying Social Security taxes and worker's compensation insurance.

"I couldn't keep up," Kaspersma says, "so we gave up."

For their part, Hutterites are becoming more wary of their neighbors. They feel tensions intensifying, saying they hear the whispers and name calling and see nasty glares replacing curious stares whenever they venture off the colony.

"Looks like there is a problem. I don't know what to say," Wurz says. "I think it's just that things are tough now, and it doesn't take a guy long to be frustrated. When a guy is angry, he will try anything."

Named for Christian martyr Jacob Hutter, the Hutterites religious group was established during the Protestant Reformation. Hutterites were among Anabaptists who thought Martin Luther's efforts to reform the Roman Catholic Church were not radical enough. They believe children should not be baptized, because they are too young to make a decision about salvation for themselves. They model themselves after early New Testament Christians who lived communally. Their traditional attire reflects their desire to live differently, eschewing the influence of the outside world.

"We don't have individual cars, TVs or anything extravagant," says Mike Waldner, bookkeeper for the Glacier colony near Cut Bank. "We buy our supplies in bulk and save money by making our own clothing."

The colonies, which traditionally shun attention and even picture taking, have been forced to grapple with community perceptions after the arson. The March 8 fire, coming on the heels of two other arsons and the poisoning of a Hutterite cistern, destroyed a building containing eight truckloads of lumber. Damage was estimated at $100,000.

The FBI is investigating whether the fire was a hate crime. If so, under Montana law the perpetrator could receive a longer prison term.

Local farmers recall the glory days during the 1950s, when farm jobs were plentiful even for teen-agers and wheat and barley were king.

In the 1970s farmers began taking on more debt by purchasing expensive, state-of-the-art tractors and other equipment, an attempt to make their operations less labor-intensive and more efficient.

Now, with new international agreements designed to open global trading, the glut of foreign goods in the U.S. market has driven down prices offered to American farmers. Some are struggling to keep up with their loans.

Montana had 24,000 farms last year, down from 33,600 in 1957, according to the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service. In Toole County, where Shelby is, the number of farms fell from 433 in 1959 to 358 in 1992, the latest year for which statistics are available.

The agricultural decline, coupled with the near demise of the oil industry here, has dragged down retail, according to the Shelby Chamber of Commerce.

Twenty-five years ago, Shelby had three auto dealers, two farm-equipment dealers, three dress shops, four hardware stores, three grocery stores and two department stores. Now there is one auto dealer, one dress shop, one hardware store, two grocery stores and no department stores or farm-equipment dealers.

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