Shunning Butterballs for Hutterites

By Beacon Staff

As Flathead Valley residents sit down to gorge on Thanksgiving dinner, thousands will share an interesting connection: They’ll be eating turkeys bred and slaughtered at Montana Hutterite colonies.

The weeks leading up to the holiday are a busy time for several northwest Montana Hutterite colonies as each colony kills and cleans hundreds of turkeys, then packages and transports them to grocers. Most of those turkeys end up here, in the Flathead Valley.

“It keeps everybody busy, but it’s farm life you know,” Daniel Kleinsasser, of the Pondera Colony near Valier, said. “In ours here, shucks, just about everybody and their dog are working on this; at least 50 people.”

The Pondera Colony delivered about 1,000 turkeys this week to grocers in Whitefish, Kalispell and Lakeside. The Sage Creek Colony near Chester, brought 1,100 birds to the valley, and another 800 came from the Kingsbury Colony near Conrad.

The turkeys are a significant, annual economic boost for the self-sufficient Hutterite colonies and a consistent seller for grocers who say people seek them out over other brands. Despite a higher price, usually around $1.25 per pound, stores like Rosauers, Apple Barrel and Markus Foods had full lists in the weeks before Thanksgiving of people eager to reserve a Hutterite bird. Most don’t know much about the colonies that they’re intent on purchasing their holiday staple from, but they agree on one thing: The Hutterite turkeys just taste better.

“All of our stuff is raised natural, no antibiotics or steroids,” Kleinsasser said. “Once you eat it you notice a difference. We raise chickens too, and sometimes we’ll run out and we’ll go to the store and buy some and they just don’t taste the same.”

Some of Montana’s more unique farmers, about 4,000 Hutterites live in roughly 40 colonies throughout the state. The colonies are usually limited to around 100 people, who follow strict beliefs derived from a 16th century Anabaptist movement. These beliefs, based on early Christian teachings and a belief in a strict separation of church and state, include a form of communal living, communal ownership of property, nonviolence and opposition to war, and adult baptism. They retain the dress, customs, language and austere lifestyle of their German ancestors and are most easily identified by the women’s black-and-white polka dot headscarves.

Turkeys are hardly a colony’s sole source of income: Hutterites produce about 60 percent of the state’s pork, 50 percent of the eggs, and about 17 percent of the milk in Montana. Additional revenue comes from selling fresh eggs, and seasonal produce.

“It’s a challenge to stay competitive, but I like getting Montanans something good to eat,” Joe Wurtz, of the Sage Creek colony, said. “We raise food for Montanans. I like people in Montana; they are nice and it’s good to share this good food with neighbors.”

Wurtz and his nephew Gary Wurtz, 21, joked around as they unloaded turkeys at Rosauers last week, teasing companion Jake Hofer, 17, about his family – “There’s more Hofers than gophers in our colony.” A two-hour drive from their colony the three had several stops across the valley before returning home, where this week the colony will hold its own Thanksgiving celebration, albeit without football and lounging.

“Oh yeah, we eat some turkey and then go back to work,” Gary Wurtz said.

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