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Sivertsen: Communities should boycott Hutterites

Says members of colonies should be assimilated

 

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Bob Sivertsen leans on a chair and speaks to the crowd during a public meeting Thursday at the Quality Inn in Havre.

Some 50 people attended a meeting in Havre last night in which the organizer said people should boycott Hutterite products because, he said, they have an unfair advantage.

"We need to be able to talk to them and help assimilate them into our society," community activist Bob Sivertsen said at the meeting he organized at Quality Inn in Havre.

Sivertsen said that the Hutterites have an unfair advantage due to their tax situation and how the colonies operate.

"We have to take them to the table. One thing we need to do immediately is we quit buying from them," he said, adding that means buying from them directly or purchasing products from the colony either in farmers markets or from stores.

"They don't pay the taxes that we pay," he said.

But some Hutterite leaders - and some people at the meeting - said Sivertsen has his information wrong.

"It's a lack of enlightenment, a lack of education, and I guess us Hutterites have to start speaking out and informing people," Minister William Hofer of the East Malta Colony said in an interview.

Colonies in Montana

Hutterites are an anabaptist - believing people should not be baptized until they can decide to do so as adults - Christian sect that was formed in the 1500s.

The sect is named for anabaptist leader Jacob Hutter, who was tortured and burned at the stake for his beliefs in Austria in 1535.

His followers continued to travel through Europe to avoid persecution, and eventually, after many settled in Russia, emigrated to North America in the 1800s along with fellow anabaptist sect the Mennonnites.

The Amish, who are of Mennonnite descent, hutterite.org says, also are an anabaptist Christian sect.

The Hutterites settled in the Great Plains, with most colonies today in Montana, South Dakota and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Although the exact operation of each colony depends on the colony, the sect has some common beliefs.

The Hutterites believe in community of goods, that is, that all material goods are held in common for the benefit of each colony. Hutterite.org says the principle means that all members of the colony are provided for equally and no assets are to be kept for personal gain, beliefs they take from their interpretation of the Bible.

The members of the colony work for each other and don't pay wages to the members, but all necessities of life are provided, Hutterite.org says.

Hutterites also are a pacifist movement, and believe in complete separation of church and state.

Montana Office of Public Instruction's 2008 "Essential Understandings of Montana Hutterites: A Resource for Educators and Students" says a colony is a group of families governed by the minister who is elected, as are a secretary and assistant minister. Depending on what the colony's major areas of agriculture are, they may have managers. Each adult has assigned responsibilities to sustain the colony.

"The Hutterite colonies in Montana contribute to the state's economy as hog, beef, dairy, egg, poultry and grain producers. In the summertime their vans can be seen at farmers' markets throughout the state where they sell fresh produce, eggs, poultry and sometimes bakery products," the OPI report said. "The colonies are primarily self-sufficient.

" ... Because the colonies own land, they pay significant property taxes and because they own farm equipment and livestock they pay business and livestock taxes. In some of our small rural districts they may be among the school district's biggest property tax payers."

The issue of antagonism to Hutterite land purchases is not new.

A 1998 article in The Chicago Tribune examines complaints by Montana ag producers about Hutterite land purchase - and comments from Montana ag producers and other residents who supported the Hutterites.

Other articles about the issue have appeared periodically in Montana and national publications.

Unfair advantage claimed

Sivertsen said the meeting was to discuss how to save the family farm, Main Street business and protect people's constitutional rights. He said that 150 years ago, the government needed people to farm the land and the colonies were looking for religious freedom. But times have changed, he said, and the Hutterites are given an unfair advantage over the family farmer, giving them the ability to outbid other producers to purchase land.

"They really don't pay any income tax," he said. "... We can't compete with that. Members buy up farmland at prices no one else can touch."

George Hofer, a manager at the East Malta Colony, said that he operates like many of other people in town, and Sivertsen is wrong about the colonies not paying taxes. Hutterites tend to pay some of the highest in taxes in the area.

"He's on the wrong track, the Hutterites pay just as much," Hofer said.

He said he told Sivertsen that the Hutterites do pay taxes, specifically income tax. The Hutterites are an LLC corporation, paying individual income tax as well as corporate tax, he said.

Hofer added that he offered to present Sivertsen a notarized letter from their accountants as proof.

He said that Sivertsen was also under the impression that the Hutterites sent all of their money into a central bank in Canada, which is also untrue - the Hutterites do pool together some money in an account so all the colonies can help other colonies in case of disasters.

Hutterites don't pay into Social Security or workers compensation, but also don't draw benefits from those programs.

East End Colony Manager David Kleinsasser said that colony is one of the top three tax payers in Hill County, paying more than $100,000 a year in taxes.

Meeting goers speak out

Tricia Williams Ferrys said during the meeting that she didn't believe the people speaking had all the facts, and the facts they did have they didn't know enough about to be able to explain why it was an issue.

"I really felt that a group is being attacked unfairly," she said.

She said that people at the meeting were upset about something the Hutterites are legally doing, and Sivertsen was using "hot words" such as socialism to raise tensions.

"I see this concern about land being bought up, I think the reason that family farms are being sold are many and I think that unfortunately that scares people," she said. "... When people fear a loss of their livelihood and the loss of their dream they had for themselves and their family they look for someone or something to blame."

Kari McLaughilin said the group didn't have any real facts to fall back on, only hearsay and points that they admitted they didn't fully comprehend.

Tom Graff said after the meeting that he sees a major issue that the Hutterite colonies are not treated the same way as family farmers and have an unfair advantage.

"We want to level the playing field," he said.

Another point Sivertsen made is that Hutterites don't spend money locally.

William Hofer said that also is incorrect - they do spend money locally, and the claim they don't is ill-informed.

"It's Walmart, Amazon, internet companies that are taking the business away from small businesses and small towns, not the Hutterites," he said.

Hutterites are part of the community and contribute to the community like anyone else, he said.

Claim of First Amendment violation

Sivertsen also said during the meeting that his First Amendment rights had been violated because he was not allowed to hold his meeting at the 4-H Chuckwagon on the Hill County Fairgrounds.

Sivertsen had to change locations of his meeting three times.

He originally advertised the meeting in the Havre Elks Lodge #1201, but told the Havre Daily News that, after reviewing their bylaws, the bylaws wouldn't allow them to host the meeting there.

Sivertsen then requested using the 4-H Chuckwagon on the Great Northern Fairgrounds.

In an email forwarded to Sivertsen by Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson, which Sivertsen forwarded to the Havre Daily News, Todd Hanson of Havre said he was deeply concerned the county would let Sivertsen use a facility "in an effort to garner an audience and support of his bigoted, defamatory and discriminatory attack upon the Hutterite members of our community and to encourage a boycott of their business enterprises. This type of unwarranted, salacious and prejudicial attack upon a group of citizens which make significant economic contributions to our local economy is absurd and should not be permitted."

Hanson requested in the email that the county solicit a legal opinion on the meeting being held on county property.

Commissioner Diane McLean said the county attorney advised the commission to delay scheduling a meeting for Sivertsen until she could research the First Amendment implications of the issue.

Peterson said the county researching the legalities has nothing to do with its taking a stance on one side or the other.

"The county is trying to do things legally and correctly," he said. "It takes time to research legality.

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Mark Lakey, of Chester, addresses concerns brought up by Tricia Williams Ferry, of Havre, during debates at a public meeting regarding the relationship between Hutterite communities and small farmers Thursday at the Quality Inn in Havre.

" ... It's not us saying 'aye' or 'nay' on his opinion," Peterson added. "... It isn't fair for the county to be drug into this when we're just trying to follow the law."

Issue may continue

Sivertsen said that as long as what he called an unfair advantage is given to the colonies, the issue will not die.

"The resentment is going to continue to go on," he said.

William Hofer said that he has spoken to Sivertsen multiple times in the past couple of weeks, through emails and by phone, trying to clear things up with Sivertsen.

"He has been misinformed on certain things," he said. "I'm enlightening him on some of the topics."

Kleinsasser said what he has heard about doesn't make sense and he doesn't know what Siversten is trying to do.

"His attitude is going in the wrong direction," he said. "... It's just wasting time and putting Havre in a bad position."

 

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