Diversifying To Survive: Hutterite Colonies Explore Innovative Businesses To Enhance Their Ag Portfolios
June 18, 2018
Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
This sage wisdom has been passed down from generation to generation of farming and ranching families. Diversifying a production agricultural portfolio can help weather through market pitfalls, damaging weather conditions and other unpredictable factors that can impact a bottom line.
However, as inputs continue to escalate, land prices and rental rates skyrocket and competition for access only intensifies, diversification is starting to look a little different for today's modern producer.
To survive, producers often rely on off-farm income. A spouse who works in town with full benefits and a healthcare plan seems to be a saving grace for many agricultural families. In fact, a recent USDA report indicated that on average 82 percent of U.S. farm household income is expected to come from off-farm work this year, up from 53 percent in 1960.
Much like your typical multi-generation farm family, Hutterite colonies are facing similar challenges in trying to support their families under the stresses and market conditions of current agricultural trends.
The Hutterite Bretheren practices rural communal living in cooperative colonies, and traditionally, agricultural pursuits have been their primary source of income. Today, they are seeking new and innovative avenues of income — some surprising, some very niche and all showing an out-of-the-box approach to paying the bills and keeping the farm afloat.
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At Upland Hutterian Bretheren, Inc, located near Artesian, S.D., investments in new businesses will hopefully help add income to support the 165 members of the colony. In addition to 1,200 head of cattle, a farrow-to-finish hog operation, a dairy barn, meat shop and row crops, Upland is utilizing its talents for other pursuits such as custom leather-work, built-from-scratch cabinetry, laser steel cutting and start-to-finish recreational vehicles.
"We partnered with Old Elm Spring Hutterite Colony in Dimock to start the camper business," said Dean Wipf, a member of Upland who is involved in the camper and cabinetry sides of the business. "Old Elm acquired the company, TrailManor, and asked us to help out. We put up a 94 x 360' building for constructing the campers, and we officially started operating at the beginning of 2018."
TrailManor is a well-established camper brand (more information can be found at trailmanor.com), so finding clients has not been difficult. However, ramping up the pace of production has a definite learning curve, and Upland is hoping to reduce labor time to under 100 man hours and be able to build at least two per week.
"The floor plans vary depending on the size ordered, but what's great about these travel trailers is they can be pulled behind a smaller vehicle and they can be folded down for both efficient towing and storage in a standard garage," said Mark Wertz, the preacher at Upland, who also specializes in shoe repair and making bridles, halters and saddles from scratch.
The camper business has taken precedence over another enterprise Upland had been focusing on in year's past — building calf shelters, hay feeders, continuous fencing and calving barns for area livestock producers.
"The colonies can get very competitive at times," said Paul Wipf, Upland mechanic and board member. "So if one colony is doing well in a certain business, many will follow suit, and then the market becomes saturated. That's kind of what happened with our calf shelters and barns, so we are hopeful the new addition of the camper company is unique enough and could potentially support our colony if it ever branches off."
Typically, Hutterite colonies tend to break off into smaller groups once numbers exceed 100; at 165, Upland isn't one of the largest colonies in the state, but it does become more difficult to feed and support that many people. Yet, just like farming families, acquiring land and a location that is conducive to agriculture is becoming exceedingly difficult, thus the expansion into other businesses that don't have as large of a footprint as farming and ranching requires.
According to hutterites.org, there are 462 Hutterite Bretherens located in Canada and the U.S., with most concentrated in Alberta (168), Manitoba (107), Saskatchewan (60) and South Dakota (54). Located largely in Central and Eastern South Dakota, these colonies continue to grow in size and scope, making them a strong competitor in the local agricultural markets. However, it's their ability to think outside the box that might just set them apart the most.
At the Spring Valley Hutterite Colony located in Wessington Springs, S.D., insulation has been a successful enterprise for its members. Upland cooperates with Spring Valley to supply insulation for its building projects and campers.
For the Millerdale Hutterite Colony in Miller, S.D., custom embroidery for advertisers, schools and businesses has been a mainstay.
And at Platte Colony, located 10 miles west of Platte, S.D., a business called Ola Precast, which specializes in full CAD-based prototyping capabilities helps clients model designs and transfer concepts to the colony's structural and civil engineering partners and contractors, while diversifying their portfolio to keep their hogs, turkey, chickens, crops and shoe repair enterprises afloat.
According to the Ola Precast website, "Precast concrete is one of the most durable, versatile and efficient building materials in use today that can be used in residential construction, commercial buildings, infrastructure projects and agricultural storage. Offering a stronger structure than a hoop or pole building, precast offers better efficiency and durability that pre-engineered metal structures."
That's one thing noticeable in any enterprise the Hutterites take on. From making buns and laundry soap from scratch, to growing vegetables, to raising livestock and crops, to diversifying with unique projects and enterprises, they are dedicated to producing high-quality work, using top-notch, up-to-date technology, and they are hard-working people whose projects are backed by integrity and a strong, deeply rooted faith in God.
"When I'm not repairing shoes, I'm praying and reflecting on the best courses of action for the colony," said Wertz. "As the preacher, I know technology is important for our businesses, but it's a challenge to limit the access of technology to our children. We are currently working with five other colonies to develop cell phone technology that will have stronger controls for cell phones. This would not only be great for us, but for parents who want to have a say in what their kids are looking at on their smartphones, as well as companies who are often paying employees who are just wasting time on Facebook. It's an emerging technology that could really have a market with consumers."
Finding a niche for each young member of the colony takes some trial and error. Much like a student goes off to college to pursue a degree and a skill set, Hutterite children learn by doing under the mentorship of those above them.
"Our children graduate at eighth grade, and from there, they rotate every couple of years to different jobs in the colony," said Paul Wipf. "This allows them to learn from mentors and explore the various things we do. Based on their interests and skill sets, we can place them into a position where they will thrive. For me, I've always loved mechanics, and I've gotten a chance to work on the trailer and wiring of the campers, which has been interesting. For my brother, Dean, he's very handy with woodworking, and in addition to the custom cabinets, he makes things like gun cabinets, wedding ring boxes, mantels, coffee stands, end tables, benches and picture frames. We can pretty much take custom orders and are very cost-friendly compared to what you might find in town."
While often misunderstood, perhaps due to the colony's remote locations and being removed from much of society, Hutterite colonies are jacks of all trades, and chances are, if you need a job done, they have the expertise, skills, equipment and technology to tackle it, and if they can't, they certainly know of another colony who could.