They’ve been a presence on the Canadian Prairies for generations, communities steeped in religion, farming and a culture harkening back centuries to their European roots.
But after years of hard-won growth – and undying efforts to keep the temptations of the secular world at bay – many Hutterite colonies now find themselves at a crossroads.
Technology is essential for their communities’ growing, large-scale farms, but at the same time it puts their unique way of life at risk.
“I’m very scared if things keep on going in this modern way of life, I’m afraid our young people are going to be misled. But we pray every day,” said John Hofer, the pastor and minister of White Lake Colony north of Lethbridge, Alta.
Still, some things are constant.
Every lunchtime at the White Lake colony, the community comes together to eat in the dining hall. The room is divided in half, the women on the left, the men on the right.
Everyone knows their job. The women cook and do the dishes. The men have dinner and then go to work. Their clothes are made on-site and the meals are made with products from the farm.
Hutterites live outside of cities and towns. There are differences of opinion about technology among communities across the country, but many believe their society is best preserved in a rural setting.
The communities have one main activity: agriculture.
More than 80 people live at the White Lake colony, made up of 19 Christian Anabaptist families who primarily speak German.
“The Hutterites are unusual,” said John Lehr, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Winnipeg, who has studied nearly 40 Hutterite colonies.
“They are without any doubt the longest lasting, truly communal society anywhere in the world.”
David Hofer, secretary and treasurer of the White Lake colony, is one of the colony’s senior members. He rides a quad to get around the 20,000 acre farm.
Their clothes may look old fashioned, but their farming equipment follows the latest trends.
“You can’t run a farm anymore without a computer,” said Hofer, who added that technology helps the community better understand the state of the crops, and communicate easily if there is a problem.
Their agricultural activities are linked to the world market. Their potatoes end up in Korea and at McDonald’s. Their chickens and pigs are sold in major grocery stores.
They’re also faced with the same issues as other farmers.
“We have to work a lot harder right now. You have to go into specialty crops to make that high price equipment pay for itself,” said Hofer. The colony is now growing corn and lentils to offset the rising cost of fertilizer, gasoline, and electricity.
Even though the farming business isn’t as lucrative as it used to be, most Hutterite colonies are doing well financially, said Simon Evans, adjunct professor of geography at the University of Calgary, who studied this topic in 2019.
“Hutterite agriculture in Alberta is flourishing. The next decade or two will surely see the trends that have been outlined continuing. There will be more colonies, and they will be larger,” said Evans.
“By pursuing agricultural activities with the aid of modern technology and science, while at the same time adopting a self-sufficient lifestyle and strict limitations on consumer spending, the Hutterites have been able to accumulate capital on a scale, and at a pace, that would be the envy of any family farmer,” said Evans.
Indeed, in terms of production, they punch above their weight.
While Hutterites make up a tiny fraction of the Alberta population, they produce 80 per cent of the eggs, 40 per cent of the pork, 25 per cent of the milk and 20 per cent of the poultry in the province, according to figures from Alberta Milk, Alberta Chicken Producers, Alberta Pork, and Egg Farmers of Alberta.
All of the colonies together own about four per cent of Alberta’s farmland, said Ian MacLachlan, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Lethbridge.
The colonies also enjoy certain advantages inherent in their communal living.
It’s a workforce that also does not take vacations, is not unionized and goes under the radar of Employment Standards, the organization responsible for compliance with working conditions in Alberta.
Are they more profitable than other farms? MNP accountant Scott Dickson, who does work for nearly 280 colonies across the country, says no. But Hutterites are careful to put aside money to open new colonies and invest in their operations.
“I have lots of colonies that do two, three or four per cent in a good year. I think that’s similar to most farm return on investment. When you consider fair value of the land ... return on investment compared to what you’d make putting in the bank account, they’re no better,” he said.
“Slim profit margins in agriculture make the hill that you have to climb to build the next place no matter what farmer you are, but the cost of capital is increasing exponentially.”
When a colony reaches 150 people, another is created to accommodate half of them. According to Hofer, the necessary budget averages around $30 million dollars.
To stay competitive, colonies invest in modernized tractors and have learned to adapt to globalization. Settlements are branching out into new industries like high-end door and window manufacturing, sectors that require less land to purchase.
Advances in technology help them to compete and some view it as a necessary evil. But others feel the presence of computers and the internet in some colonies does not bode well for the future.
“We don’t know what’s on there. They can spend too much time on there, too. We want them to be out in the field, in the tractors, working and not sitting on the phone all the time,” said David.
The elder Hofer, John, shares his fear.
“Maybe we shouldn’t get involved so much in this modern technology.”