Paul Wipf is a Hutterite ambassador of sorts. He has talked about life on Hutterite colonies at Alberta farm shows, he speaks openly to reporters, and he puts time and effort into helping the general public see what it means to be Hutterite.
Wipf is also the farm steward — he doesn’t like the title “farm boss” — on the Viking Colony, about two hours southeast of Edmonton. Typically, Hutterite colonies have a range of ventures, and the Viking Colony, which sits squarely in Alberta’s parkland, is no exception.
Wipf and his brethren run a dairy, custom feedlot and grain farm. They raise hogs and broiler chickens. They collect eggs from laying hens. They also process their own chickens on the farm.
Most interesting of all, however, may be the way the leaders on the Viking Colony mobilize their community of 110 people to create and run several ventures, utilizing both their business savvy and their cultural roots.
For the Hutterites, diversification at some level is a practical response to a practical problem.
It helps Hutterites earn revenue, manage risk and put people to work. Wipf puts the average grain enterprise for a colony at about 10,000 acres. A colony of 100 people would have about 30 or 35 working men, Wipf says. “You don’t need 35 men farming, running farm equipment.”
Hutterites also face many of the same financial pressures as their farming neighbours. Colonies also pay income tax.
But they also need to tackle distinctive challenges.
Wipf says one goal for every Hutterite colony is to make sure the colony is sustainable. Hutterites care for each community member from the cradle to the grave. It’s a major commitment.
Although individual members don’t accumulate wealth, they don’t rough it, either. Wipf describes Hutterite homes as “state of the art.” Take a peek in a communal Hutterite kitchen and you’ll see shiny, industrial equipment. And anyone who has been lucky enough to sit down for a meal on a Hutterite colony will know that no one goes hungry.
But Hutterites not only need to maintain their lifestyles on existing colonies, they need to save enough money to help future daughter colonies. Once there are about 140 people in the colony, a daughter colony may split from the original mother colony.
“The whole plan of a colony is to take care of the next generations. It is no different from your parents helping you through university and getting used to that. But we do it to a greater extent,” says Wipf.
Mother colony members support the new colony until it’s on its feet. That means finding a parcel of land, building infrastructure, and getting the daughter colony up and running.
Picking a new venture
Hutterite colonies do have one advantage over single-family farms when it comes to brainstorming new ventures. Colonies, because of their sheer numbers, have a lot of “thinking power,” says Wipf. And although not all ideas will work, he agrees, “from those ideas some new ideas can spring forward.”
The Viking Colony’s management team includes a president/minister, a vice-president, a financial manager/secretary, councillors, and the farm steward. Colony members elect people to the financial manager and farm steward positions. They also elect a small slate of candidates for the president and vice-president system, and from there a lot system determines who holds those positions.
“So hopefully those people who vote, vote with a vision for the future, spiritually and materially,” says Wipf.
Wipf and the rest of the colony’s management team discuss new business ideas during their morning meetings. After analyzing the idea, if they decide it has merit for their community, they start working with their accountant and researching the idea.
The colony leadership then creates a plan and presents it to members to discuss and vote on. Members trust their leadership, Wipf says, but sometimes a member will voice another idea. “That could be a good idea and we’ll review it again,” he says.
Wipf and the rest of the leadership evaluate new business ideas much the same way any other manager would. They look at costs of production to figure out what they need to earn to make a profit. They consider where the market is, and whether the product is going to be in demand.
They eye existing businesses to see if they can add value to their products. Why ship poultry to Lilydale when they can process the birds on farm?
Wipf also thinks about what gives the colony’s products an edge over their competitors. “What makes Hutterite chicken better than the usual grocery-store birds?” he asks. “It’s the freshness. By the time you get them into Sobeys or Superstore, who knows how old they are?”
Wipf also watches societal trends. For example, as people move away from home cooking and as families shrink, he sees a place for smoked chicken.
Wipf is also conscious of branding, and aware of the brand that Hutterites have built over the years. “People seem to trust Hutterites and the way that they do a good job of raising their food.”
Hutterite human resources
Nor is the Viking Colony leadership afraid to look outside the colony for advice. Along with an accountant, Wipf says they’ll consult with private agronomists and nutritionists to ensure their farm businesses run smoothly.
But a Hutterite colony’s success isn’t due just to its leadership and consultants. Each member contributes by working steadily and by throwing in their two cents when the colony needs to make a decision.
A big part of Wipf’s job is to manage people. In many ways, Wipf faces the same challenges other managers do. But in other ways, Hutterite colonies are unique workplaces in North America. Workers don’t draw a wage or salary. And Wipf says the spiritual side is important.
“You start off in the Hutterite community by teaching your children character, morals, faith and your culture,” he says.
Young men start working in the colony’s business ventures at age 15 or 16. Whether they’re living on a Hutterite colony or downtown Toronto, teenagers deal with many of the same growing pains. Wipf, who has his own children, is familiar with the typical signs of teenage stress. Reassuring teenagers that they’ll be supported through crisis is very effective, in his view. “And so if you have that parenting ability, you can also apply that as a farm manager or enterprise manager,” he says.
Wipf meets with each new worker to welcome him into the workplace and set expectations. “I do try to practise that I’ll be the best and first friend that he’ll have. And with that, I try to win his heart,” says Wipf. “But there will come a time that I’ll have to deal with issues.”
The new workers rotate through each of the colony’s farm businesses, and learn some welding and mechanics. This gives them a feel for things and reveals their interests and strengths. Wipf says some jobs are more desirable than others. He tries to give workers the support they need to do the job, such as sending them to hog board meetings.
Wipf does have to deal with workplace problems sometimes. If someone isn’t pulling his weight, Wipf speaks to him privately. He tries to separate the person from the issue, he says.
If the problems continue, the worker will meet with the colony’s preacher and council.
“If he doesn’t hear them, he’s got bigger issues than we can deal with,” Wipf says. “And sometimes some of those things are best left alone, until they go through whatever is ailing them.”
Most colony members don’t need a lot of motivation to do the job, though. If someone shows up late for work or otherwise isn’t pulling his weight, he’ll hear from his co-workers, Wipf adds. “It’s a self-correcting thing.”
Managers need to be able to anticipate change and adapt, in Wipf’s view. Communication is important. And Wipf doesn’t believe in micromanaging people.
“The best way is to get them to participate (in decision-making). It’s the best way to lead people,” he says. Inviting people to help make decisions on important matters makes them feel important and needed.
The future of Hutterite diversification
When it comes to evaluating whether a business venture is a success or not, Wipf says it’s more of a process than an event.
As every farmer knows, some years are good for grain farmers and not so great for the livestock industry, and vice versa. The Viking Colony’s feedlot doesn’t have big capital costs, so they can switch in and out of that business depending on grain prices. Others, such as the hog operation, are not going to be profitable every year.
“For years and years, there was no money in hogs. So whatever you made one year you spent the next five. But you know how farmers are… Guys get snowed in. Do they quit farming? No. They try and clean it up, because hopefully next year is a better year. And that’s the same thing with us with different enterprises.”
Farming has been a natural fit for Hutterites, but Wipf isn’t sure if new colonies will have as many farm businesses as they have in the past. Not all new Hutterite colonies can afford dairy quota and farmland these days, he explains. And given current grain markets, Wipf finds it hard to stomach the purchase price on a new combine, just as his neighbours likely do.
Tomorrow’s Hutterite leaders will have to think outside the box, just as their emigrating ancestors did. That means looking for gaps that Hutterites can fill. For example, Wipf notices the oil industry is taking many mechanics from the agriculture side.
“The biggest complaint today from a machinery company is, ‘I’m buying equipment from you, but you’ve got no service,’” he says.
He sees opportunities for Hutterites to set up shops with different bays to service farm machinery, oilfield equipment, and personal vehicles, for example. “Where there’s a will, there’s going to be a way.”
Wipf doesn’t have to look far to find Hutterites wading into new, non-agricultural ventures. Just down the road from the Viking Colony, the Holden Colony manufactures metal roof and siding, along with portable buildings, cabins and storage sheds.
Hutterite colonies aren’t immune to social change. Hutterites once frowned at being photographed, but Wipf says some carry digital cameras in their pockets. The Internet and ever-present smartphones mean colonies can’t hide the outside world from their children, either. Wipf writes that more Hutterite and Amish youth are leaving their communities to explore the world they glimpse online.
“Nobody on the colony raises a child and expects him to leave the community,” Wipf says, adding it is very hurtful for the family.
Retaining their faith and culture while adjusting to these changes will be a challenge, Wipf says. In his opinion, the Hutterites’ future depends on their ability to use all the tools they have, including technology, in harmony with their commitment to their faith.
Even so, he adds, “How the story will end is left for each succeeding generation to determine.”
Hutterites are descended from the Anabaptist movement and therefore share roots with Mennonite and Amish followers. But Hutterites believe in communal living, setting themselves apart from other Anabaptists.
Jacob Hutter was the original Hutterite leader, and the man from whom Hutterites draw their names. Hutter was burned at the stake in Austria in 1536. His wife, Katrina, was executed two years later.
Today’s Hutteritism started out in Germany, but spent over 400 years moving around Europe, often to escape persecution. They immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in the 1870s. Most — about two-thirds — left communal life and settled on their own individual farms.
The remaining Hutterites settled in South Dakota. They stuck with their Old-World congregations, eventually forming the three branches of modern Hutterites: Schmiedeleut, Dariusleut and Lehrerleut.
Today you’ll find most Schmiedeleut colonies in Manitoba and South Dakota. The other two branches are mainly located in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Montana. Hutterite colonies have also set up shop in North Dakota, Minnesota, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Alberta has, by far, the most Hutterite colonies.
Viking Colony members are part of the Dariusleut branch. Viking Colony is a daughter to Warburg Colony, which is a daughter to Ferrybank Colony. Paul Wipf has lived on all three of these colonies in his lifetime.