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Hutterite Boycott Organizer Takes Issue With Recent Report, Dubbs It A ‘Public Relations Campaign’

A newly released report showing the effect of Hutterite businesses on Montana’s economy was a Hutterite public relations campaign “designed to glorify their existence.”

So said former state Rep. Bob  Sivertsen, the leader of an effort to boycott Hutterite agricultural products. 

Sivertsen’s view, shared by a number of Hi-Line farmers, is that the Hutterite communal lifestyle gives the religious group unfair advantages over average Montana farmers. In June, Sivertsen held a meeting in Havre to discuss the issue and several people attended, mostly supporters of his cause.

Sivertsen’s allegation against the study drew a sharp rebuke from Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, and one of three economists behind the report. Barkey defended the research and the integrity of his bureau.

The report concluded that the colonies surveyed by researchers have a positive impact on the Montana economy, employment rate and overall population growth.

But Sivertsen claims the report is tainted because it was authorized by Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams, a  Great Falls law firm that represents Hutterite communities.

“Since the Hutterites paid for the study, they dictated what was contained in the study,” Sivertsen said in a press release.

But Barkey emphasized the financial support doesn’t mean there was outside influence on the report.  

Barkey said that when people pay for a study, they get the independent results of the researchers. His organization conducted the survey with researchers at Montana State University in Bozeman. 

“A lot of times, people don’t like the results of our research,” he said.

Work on the report began before Sivertsen’s most recent campaign for the boycott. Barkey said they began negotiating with the law firm during the 2018 fall and the work began around February.

Barkey compared his research to a newspaper writing objective stories although it is paid for, in part, by advertising. He said the bureau is committed to fair and honest research.

He said he has received several emails from Sivertsen and has answered some of them, trying to explain the bureau’s position. 

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Sivertsen said his campaign against the advantages Hutterites have over family farms “has created quite a stir.”

“The Hutterites are under the microscope, they are feeling the pressure, so they commissioned a study” that examines the effect of Hutterite colonies on Montana’s economy, Sivertsen said in his news release.

He reiterated that his campaign is not against the Hutterite people, but the “socialistic communal system” that they operate under. The communal lifestyle the Hutterites use is not in accord with the United States Constitution, Sivertsen believes.

However, “truth be known,” he said, the Hutterite communities are not an advantage to the overall Montana economy. 

He said the colonies are offered religious tax exemptions that family farmers and Main Street businesses do not have.

He also objected to the fact that Hutterites receive conscientious objector status.

 “Our veterans and men and women in the military, as well as our allies, have been combating socialism for well over a century, yet we are harboring socialism right in our communities,” he wrote.

He said his team was looking into other advantages the Hutterites are offered, but it is difficult because things such as income taxes and government assistance information is considered to be confidential.

“I had a discussion with one elder, who informed me that they do pay income taxes,” Sivertsen said. “When I told him that I would love to discuss it with him, he replied, ‘I wouldn’t waste my time on you.’ “

A report by the Havre Herald showed that the colonies were among the largest property taxpayers in Hill, Blaine and Liberty counties. The Hutterite colonies make a substantial contribution to Montana’s Medicaid Expansion program, so their members are eligible to receive its benefits.

Because of the advantages they are offered, Hutterites buy farmland at the premium prices that family farmers cannot afford, Sivertsen contends.

Sivertsen predicts that many of the issues will come up for discussion in the 2021 session of the Montana Legislature.


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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about when work on the study began.

Email John Kelleher at john@havreherald.com

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