A Hutterite colony in Martinsdale
A Hutterite colony in Martinsdale. Credit: Photo courtesy Mahalie Stackpole

HELENA — An economic study commissioned by a law firm representing Montana’s Lehrerleut Hutterite communities has concluded that the religious group’s collective business operations contribute $365.3 million annually to the Montana economy.

The study, billed as the first of its kind, was conducted by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research and Montana State University’s Department of Economics and Agricultural Economics. It also says the presence of Lehrerleut communities accounts for nearly 2,200 permanent jobs in Montana.

“The tendency of Montana Hutterites to shun public attention, the rural locations of their communities, and their higher degree of self-sufficiency have contributed to low levels of awareness and information about Hutterites among other Montanans,” the economists write. Their study, they say, is intended to redress that.

The analysis is based on the financial records of farming operations owned by 38 Lehrerleut communities. It was commissioned on behalf of the Lehrerleuts by Great Falls law firm Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams, P.C.

“We saw the need to obtain an objective understanding and quantification of the Hutterite Communities’ economic contributions to their communities and the state,” firm attorney Ron Nelson said in a release.

The study found that Lehrerleut Hutterites produce 90% of Montana-grown hogs, as well as 95% of the state’s eggs. That egg production, the economists write, supports a Wilcox Farms egg processing facility in Great Falls that employees 50 non-Hutterite workers.

Hutterite agricultural operations also constitute 34% of Montana’s dairy production and 16% of the state’s poultry production, the study says.

Map of Montana Hutterite colonies, courtesy of UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“The substantial linkages that exist between their agricultural and other operations and the rest of the state economy ultimately support jobs and income in non-Hutterite and nonagricultural sectors of the economy, resulting in a larger economic pie for all Montanans to share,” the study authors write.

The study’s added-revenue and job-creation estimates are based on computational models that simulate what the Montana economy would look like without the contributions of Hutterite business. A similar approach was used in past Bureau of Business and Economic Research studies, which estimated the economic impact of the early closure of Colstrip power plant units 3 and 4 (loss of nearly 3,300 jobs) and the number of jobs attributable to Montana’s craft brewing industry (slightly more than 1,000).

Of the nearly 2,200 jobs economists say Hutterite industry adds to Montana’s economy, almost 40% are non-agricultural positions in fields including construction, retail trade, and business services.

Hutterites, an Anabaptist sect that shares religious roots with Amish and Mennonite communities, came to North America from Europe in the 1870s to escape religious persecution, and have had a presence in Montana for more than 100 years. Hutterite communities are governed by elected ministers, and own land and other property collectively.

About 5,000 Hutterites live in the state, mostly in north-central Montana. Members are divided into two primary branches: Dariusleut Hutterites, named for founding leader Darius Walter, and Lehrerleut (German for “teacher people”) Hutterites, named for their founder’s occupation. Hutterites have at times faced suspicion in Montana.

Former state legislator Bob Sivertsen of Havre, for example, attempted to organize a boycott of Hutterite products earlier this year. According to reports in the Havre Herald, Sivertsen circulated a flyer accusing the Hutterite community of being a “Socialist Commune” with “an unfair advantage over the Family Farm and Main Street Business” and held a meeting where some attendees claimed the structure of Hutterite collectives lets their members avoid paying taxes. The Herald’s coverage noted that Hutterite colonies are among the top taxpayers in several northern Montana counties, and that Sivertsen’s allegations were criticized by some meeting attendees.

The new study says that Hutterite colonies pay property and business equipment taxes like other Montana landowners. Individual Hutterites are also subject to state and federal income taxes, though the study acknowledges that colony members’ reportable income is limited because they don’t receive individual salaries for their work.

Lehrerleut Hutterites also spent heavily on lobbying during the 2019 Montana Legislature, according to a report by Montana Public Radio. Lobbying disclosures filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices indicate Lehrerleut Hutterite Colonies, through Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams, spent nearly $78,000 on lobbying work related to Medicaid expansion renewal, workers’ compensation requirements for colony members, and other issues.

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.