Avian flu a blow to Hutterites

In South Dakota colonies, massive poultry loss is more than a business setback

Sep 8, 2015 by and

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ARLINGTON, S.D. — His eyes welling with tears, Simon Decker recalled the devastating blow inflicted nearly five months ago when avian flu wiped out 65,000 turkeys and 40,000 chickens on his eastern South Dakota operation.

Spring Lake Colony’s loss due to avian flu was $600,000 to $700,000. — Rich Preheim for MWR

Spring Lake Colony’s loss due to avian flu was $600,000 to $700,000. — Rich Preheim for MWR

“It was indescribable,” said the husky man with regal bearing. “It still brings out emotion.”

But he is especially worried about another flock: the 117 human souls entrusted to his spiritual care. Decker is the minister of Spring Lake Hutterite colony, where the poultry loss is more than just a business setback.

The Hutterites, an Anabaptist group known for a communal lifestyle and rejection of private property, live in rural colonies of no more than 150 people. There are nearly 500 colonies with some 50,000 people in six states — South Dakota has the most, with 54 — and four Canadian provinces. Each colony is self-sufficient, generating income from its own industries, which have been traditionally agricultural but are increasingly manufacturing.

While avian flu has been damaging for other corporate and family farms, their workers are free to find employment elsewhere if necessary. Hutterites, however, work almost exclusively on their insular colonies. So losing their flocks undermines their viability as a community.

“Everyone’s aware of it and understands that we cannot keep spending like we have,” said Decker, who estimated Spring Lake’s financial loss at $600,000 to $700,000. That has meant not only fewer improvements and upgrades but also less of everything else, including groceries. Spring Lake can produce much of its own food, but it can’t grow everything.

The colony isn’t the only one in such a situation. An estimated 45 colonies account for all of South Dakota’s turkey production. Nine colonies were infected, resulting in the loss of about half a million birds, said state veterinarian Dustin Oede­koven. The only non-Hutterite location in South Dakota hit by avian flu was a chicken farm. Birds that don’t die from the disease are killed to keep it from spreading.

Orland Colony, 45 miles south of Spring Lake, lost 56,000 turkeys in April.

“It wasn’t a very good feeling,” said Gary Waldner, who has worked the colony’s turkey operation since 1995. “You don’t want to go through that again.”

He said the brooder house, where the youngest turkeys are kept, needed some new equipment. “I didn’t even go and ask,” Waldner said.

Nationwide, the flu has been found at 223 sites in 15 states since December, resulting in the deaths of more than 48 million turkeys, chickens and other poultry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Among the other infected locations were Hutterite operations in Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota.

Some Hutterites are getting hit twice. About 40 colonies in the Dakotas and Minnesota own a turkey-processing plant in Huron, which this summer drastically cut back its production due to flu losses. Employees have been working on a cycle of two weeks on and one week off and are able to collect unemployment benefits when not working, reported the Huron Plainsman.

How exactly the flu is transmitted from location to location remains a mystery. Six miles away from Orland is Rustic Lake colony and its 80,000 turkeys, yet they were spared, though the colonies implemented additional measures to protect themselves. These included travel restrictions. Spring Lake even postponed a wedding between a Spring Lake woman and a man from another colony.

Caring for each other

As each colony is responsible for providing for its members, so colonies are responsible for each other. Norman Hofer, a local expert and Mennonite whose heritage is Hutterite, said there are contingencies when a colony gets into financial trouble. Wealthier colonies will provide interest-free loans with no due date, but all business decisions need to be approved by those colonies.

It remains to be seen whether that process will need to be used among the flu-stricken colonies. They are now back in the poultry business, their barns having been disinfected and quarantined for a month or more, then tested to make sure the virus isn’t present.

The colonies also have other sources of income. Spring Lake has a herd of dairy cattle, and Orland manufactures trailers.

“I feel we’ll weather it,” said Spring Lake minister Decker, “barring it happening again.”

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