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Mikkel Pates, Published December 01 2013

Montana Hutterites big part of state's hog industry

CONRAD, Mont. – If it wasn’t for the Hutterites, the Big Sky State would be home to only a small number of hogs. Forty colonies account for a whopping 95 percent of Montana’s hog production.

Midway Colony in Conrad is from the Lehrerleut sect of Hutterites, which migrated from Canada into Montana in the late 1940s. The colony was split five years ago from the Miller Colony, north of Choteau. Midway’s central enterprise is a 470-sow, farrow-to-finish operation, primarily delivering to niche markets on the West Coast and export markets in the Pacific Rim.

Besides pigs, the colony also has about 225 beef cow-calf pairs and sells feeder calves in October. It raises a few broilers and turkeys for local farmers markets and has a large garden for farmers marketing, as well as its own use. It also has a crop farm that raises winter wheat and malting barley.

The colony’s gleaming facility was built in 2005 and populated in early 2006. David J. “Shorty” Hofer started as hog manager and earlier this year was named secretary, or business manager. He is the oldest of four children. He and his wife Justina have six children – four daughters and two sons, ages 7 to 17.

There is nothing old-fashioned about the equipment in this place. The hog operation uses sophisticated automated feeding and some of the top genetics from Genesus Genetics in Manitoba.

No Hutterite hogs are artificially inseminated, which Hofer explains as a “church thing,” especially for the Lehrerleut sect.

The colony starts by breeding York females to Landrace boars. The first crosses are bred to Genesus Durocs, and the offspring are raised to be market hogs.

“The Duroc sire line is where you get the meat quality,” Hofer says.

A regulated CAFO

The Midway Colony’s hog operation has the first new facility built and operated under a federal Confined Animal Feeding Operation license.

“Everything we do here is scrutinized by the Environmental Protection Agency and every other government agency out there, I guess,” Hofer says, smiling.

Manure from the barns falls through slats into pits. It’s taken out of the barns in a slurry. They separate solids and apply them to the land. Mineral-rich water waits in a lagoon and is emptied every fall. In 2008, the colony received a $200,000 match from the federal Environmental Quality Improvement Program to install a rubber-like cover, trapping the sulfate smell.

“We get at least $100,000 in value out of this manure every year, and it’s as good or better than commercial fertilizer, although it’s harder to apply,” Hofer says. “If you get away from the ick factor and view it as an asset, it’s very valuable.”

The Salmon Creek way

The colony is part of Salmon Creek Farms Natural Pork, an association that deals with Independent Meat Co. of Twin Falls, Idaho. A third of the association’s pork is exported, a third is in retail and another third is in food service.

Salmon Creek includes eight partner farms, including two in Canada. Most are in Montana and some non-Hutterite operations in Utah.

Salmon Creek requires that members finish hogs on wheat or barley. Small grains will “lay down a hard, white fat” on the hog carcasses, Hofer says.

The brands emphasize Hutterite culture. Customers seem to like the Hutterite “story,” which focuses on families and a dedication to the animals.

In fact, a picture of Hofer is on the meat boxes delivered under the organization’s Newport Meat label. He is currently in the middle of a three-year term as association president.

Midway Colony hasn’t fed any corn for three years, Hofer says.

“If you finish on corn, the flavor and marbling might be there, but the fat will be a little softer,” he says. “We need that to go into the Pacific Rim markets – Japanese markets. If western Montana differentiates itself from other producers – like Smithfield and Tyson – it’s because we finish on barley and wheat.”

On the packing side, natural pork is sold in its natural state, with no solutions infused to make it juicier or tender, or to add flavor.

“If you go to Disneyland in California today and order a pork sandwich, you will be eating our pork, from our associations,” Hofer says.

Protein peacemaker?

Despite his distance from the larger hog industry, Hofer is involved in meat industry policy issues. Like much of the hog industry, he opposes country-of-origin labeling for retail meat.

“If you don’t believe people buy the cheapest, go to Wal-Mart,” he says. “Every cart is heaping full.”

The meat industry spends too much energy on infighting, he thinks.

“It’s divide-and-conquer across the board,” Hofer says. “Instead of uniting to fight a vegan or anti-agriculture agenda in America, they’re fighting each other. They’re wasting energy; not enough time to promote our product and have everybody eating meat.”

He says if there aren’t enough U.S. cattle to fill the markets, he’d rather see Canadian or Mexican cattle (“which are U.S.-owned anyway”) fill the void versus bringing in products from places such as Brazil.

Although the Hutterite way is not universally understood or appreciated, Hofer is a strong believer.

“This truly is the socialistic lifestyle – the commitment to God, family,” he says, and smiles again. “Truthfully, it’s the best life there is to live.”