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Sunday, August 30, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Resentment Grows Against Tax-Exempt Montana Hutterites

Chicago Tribune

SHELBY, Mont. - Bedecked in the same type of straw hat, dark suspenders and black trousers his German ancestors wore, John Wurz seemed an anachronism seated at his computer, tapping the keyboard to set the high-tech hog feeder at the sprawling Hillside ranch.

Wurz oversees a multimillion-dollar enterprise for a colony of 120 or so Hutterites, who, like the Amish, maintain an austere communal lifestyle and agrarian traditions. Unlike the Amish, though, the Hutterites embrace modern conveniences.

This thriving enterprise at the foot of the Canadian border, and about 45 other Hutterite colonies scattered across Montana, has become a sore spot for numerous farmers and residents, who are concerned the growth and success of the tax-exempt colonies is taking valuable farm land out of circulation during difficult economic times.

The friction came to a head last spring when a shed full of lumber that was going to be used for a new nearby colony was set afire, the third such incident in recent months.

Others plunging into debt

While the Hutterites have gobbled up more land for expansion, an increasing number of other farmers have plunged into debt, scaling back or selling farms that in many cases had been in their families for generations.

Hutterites also have felt the sting of rising costs and a drop in market prices driven by a glut of foreign produce. Their critics, though, assert that the tax-exempt status Hutterites receive because

of their religious affiliation and their pool of communal labor shields them from economic harm.

One retired farmer, Leonard Kaspersma, said the Hutterites undercut him and helped put him out of business. He said the Hutterites had much lower production costs because of their free labor and because they are exempt from paying Social Security taxes and worker's compensation insurance.

For their part, Hutterites are becoming more wary of their neighbors. They feel tensions intensifying, saying they hear the whispers and name calling and see nasty glares replacing curious stares whenever they venture off the colony.

"Looks like there is a problem. I don't know what to say," Wurz said. "I think it's just that things are tough now and it doesn't take a guy long to be frustrated. When a guy is angry, he will try anything."

Named for Christian martyr Jacob Hutter, the Hutterites religious group was established during the Protestant Reformation. Hutterites were among Anabaptists who thought Martin Luther's efforts to reform the Catholic Church were not radical enough.

Take after early Christians

They believe children should not be baptized because they are too young to make a decision about salvation for themselves. They model themselves after early New Testament Christians, who lived communally. Their traditional attire reflects their desire to live differently.

"We are a group that has no labor costs," said Mike Waldner, bookkeeper for the Glacier colony near the town of Cut Bank, Mont. "We don't have individual cars, TVs or anything extravagant. We buy our supplies in bulk and save money by making our own clothing."

The March 8 fire, coming after two other arsons and the poisoning of a cistern, destroyed a building containing eight truckloads of lumber. Damage was estimated at $100,000.

The FBI is investigating whether the fire was a hate crime. If that turns out to be the case, the perpetrator, in accordance with Montana law, could receive a longer prison term.

Local farmers recall the glory days during the 1950s, when farm jobs were plentiful even for teenagers. Wheat and barley were king, supplying such major companies as General Mills and the Coors brewery.

In the 1970s, though, farmers began taking on more debt by purchasing expensive, state-of-the-art tractors and other equipment, an attempt to make their operations less labor intensive and more efficient. Now, with new international agreements designed to open global trading, the glut of foreign goods in the U.S. market has driven down prices offered to American farmers. Some are struggling to keep up with their loans.

Number of farms dwindles

In Montana, the number of farms last year stood at 24,000, down from 33,600 in 1957, according to the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service. In Toole County, Mont., where Shelby is located, the number of farms fell from 433 in 1959 to 358 in 1992, the latest year for which statistics are available.

The decline, coupled with the near demise of the oil industry here, has dragged down retail, according to the Shelby Chamber of Commerce.

The economy in Toole, Glacier and Pondera counties is in such desperate need of rejuvenation that local leaders have volunteered Shelby as a possible site for a private prison, hoping the area will benefit from the creation of about 200 jobs.

At the same time, the number of Hutterite colonies in Montana has risen to about 45, up from 40 five years ago. The group has more than 400 colonies throughout Canada, Washington state, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.

Some residents of northwest Montana, where most of the new colonies have opened, say they are particularly upset when Hutterites buy a farm because the purchase guarantees that the 10,000 or so acres usually acquired in the deals would never be resold.

"Thirty years ago the colonies were spread out. Now they're at their saturation level and it will only be a matter of time before they start eroding away the community," said Ronald Ries, owner of a local machine and tool shop and a leading critic of the Hutterites.

Ries said he began to scrutinize the Hutterites after one of the colonies bought the farms of two of his best customers. Because the Hutterites make their own machine parts, Ries said he has not made up the business.

He is compiling data, which he hopes can be used to lobby federal authorities to lift the organization's tax-exempt status. "They have evolved way past a religious category. I believe (the Hutterites' tax-exempt status) needs to be revisited," he said.

Hutterites said they feel like they have become the community's scapegoat. Still, they aren't worried, preferring to focus on their daily routine.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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