COMMUNITY STRENGTHS Gord Tait says a strong faith and sharing resources are an advantage but colonies still have to run their businesses well
Nearly a century after their arrival on the Prairies, Hutterites remain a mystery to most Canadians.
Hutterites, who make up about 10 per cent of Alberta’s agricultural economy, are well known, but little understood, says Gord Tait, a chartered accountant and director of Hutterite services with MNP, which has worked with Hutterite colonies for about 50 years and has more than 300 colonies as clients. Tait gave a presentation on Hutterite business structure at the Alberta Agricultural Economists Association conference.
Hutterites, a movement which began in Austria and Switzerland in the 1500s, are Anabaptists, which mean they are baptized as adults. They are pacifists and believe the Bible commands them to live communally.
“There is truly a commitment to the group and to the whole and a sacrifice of the self and personal belongings,” said Tait.
An average Alberta colony has about 10,000 acres of cultivated land, a 100- to 125-cow dairy, 7,500 to 10,000 layers, and 400 to 500 sows. Some colonies also have sheep, cattle or broiler operations, while others are involved in processing, carpentry, manufacturing and welding. A colony consists of 100 to 125 people, made up of 25 families. When colonies reach a size of 140 people, they will buy a new farm and create a new colony.
Hutterite colonies are legally incorporated entities and have a formal, organizational legal structure, although it doesn’t really affect their day-to-day operations.
“They do follow a corporate model and have a president, who is the minister, and a vice-president, who is the second minister,” said Tait.
Other positions include secretary-treasurer and farm manager. These positions make up the board of directors who make decisions as a group. Voting is done by men, but women have a lot of influence behind the scenes. Colonies are incorporated under a special not-for-profit structure without shareholders and profit distribution.
One of the myths is that colonies have free labour, said Tait, noting colonies take full responsibility for all members from cradle to grave, paying for homes, food, clothes and medical needs.
“It’s a different labour cost, but it’s far from free labour. One thing that is nice about their model is that their labour cost is fixed,” said Tait.
Colonies have very skilled labour, but still have to go outside for supplies such as lumber, farm equipment, and many goods and services.
“They still need to purchase far more than they would ever produce on their own,” he said.
If assets were to be divided, each family would receive only a small acreage, which would be insufficient to allow them to farm in today’s economy, said Tait. The overhead costs of a colony tend to be lower than the average business.
“They are very successful farming organizations and some are more successful than others,” he said. “But they have a very simple lifestyle and that leads to some economic success.”
They also save a lot by using shared resources, including communal kitchens, schools and churches.
“Their infrastructure gives them strong advantages in terms of lifestyle and their strong foundation in faith is one of the things that allows their lifestyle to continue to succeed,” said Tait.