You have “no entry” signs posted, you lock the buildings when you leave, you’ve installed a few outdoor lights, you even have emergency contact numbers posted — your facilities are “protected.” Well, probably not. Those are just good starting points.

Vandalism and theft can happen to any business anywhere, but farm sites are particularly vulnerable as they tend to be more isolated from steady traffic and watchful eyes.

You may have fallen victim over the years or know someone who has. The prospects are really quite high — especially as a little feed or fuel here and there can go unnoticed. 

Kent Mower, field specialist with the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers, assists with theft and vandalism issues and cites a case where a producer was “losing” 300 gallons of diesel fuel a week before determining what was really going on.

Fuel and fertilizer are temptations, as the evidence easily disappears. But with commodity prices at all-time highs, corn, cattle and hogs can be targets, although cashing them in can be a challenge. On a smaller scale, with high unemployment and food prices soaring, the occasional animal could go missing.

As for vandalism, it’s too easily and quickly associated with activist groups — whether it's animal activists or those disgruntled about modern agricultural processes. But vandals can evolve from disgruntled employees or neighbors, thieves, area youth or other ill-intentioned locals. That last one was the surprising and disturbing encounter that Dave Struthers, a Collins, Iowa, pork producer, found himself facing on a Sunday afternoon in March 2008.

His brother-in-law called him about some open gates and loose hogs, some of which were injured, on the farm’s finishing site.

“There wasn’t a house on the site, or really any outdoor lighting,” Struthers admits.

Upon further review, tire tracks, plastic pieces from a vehicle and the hogs’ odd injuries suggested someone had purposely chased and run over the hogs. “It was the cruelty that motivated us into action,” Struthers says.

The Struthers family called the sheriff and quickly compiled a reward for information. A few weeks later the vandal had been apprehended. Turns out it was an adult man who grew up 2 miles north of the site. “There was no rhyme or reason as to why this happened,” Struthers notes.

Such senseless acts are not as rare as you might think. In mid-July two Michigan youth were apprehended for impaling cattle.

The folks at Struthers Farms took away some lessons. “We go over to the site more often; we’ve put up some yard lights,” Struthers notes. “We had a neighborhood party and exchanged telephone numbers and committed to keeping a closer watch for each other.”

Don’t make it easy
Whether it’s your home, business or yourself walking from the store to your car, law enforcement’s universal message is “Don’t make it easy for criminals.”

With a pork production business commonly spread out over multiple locations, and often without anyone living on site, it can be an easy target for thieves or vandals. Buildings set back from the road or bordering crop fields can buy the isolated time perpetrators need.

Last fall, a handful of pork production sites in a three-county area of northeast Iowa were vandalized. It appeared that the persons involved had prior knowledge of the sites’ schedules and traffic patterns. “They had to work a bit to get into the buildings, but they knew the farms’ schedules,” Mower notes.

So that’s an easy rule to start with — vary your routine. “Especially if you suspect tampering or that a site is being watched,” Mower says.

Pork production relies on schedules and routines to keep systems flowing, but it makes it easy for the bad guys too. Change it up a half-hour here and there or stagger workers’ shifts or simply assign the occasional “drop in” as part of someone’s job.

Here are some more tips

• Look at your business through the criminal’s eyes. What would be the most effective things to steal or damage? What’s most vulnerable? “Criminals look to wreak as much havoc as possible without being seen, taking  too much time or

being heard,” Mower says.

• With theft, the person is looking to steal things he or she can sell or use, things like computers, grain or animals.

• Vandalism is another story, as they’ll destroy most anything. For example, they can do a lot of damage in a farm office. “There’s costly equipment; they can destroy records, flood the area or start fires,” Mower notes. “Always back up your records and put that somewhere else for safe-keeping.”  

Mower has seen bulk bins filled with water, feed tubes removed so feed dumps into the manure pit, disabled phones and alarms, transformers shot out, hammers taken to feed-system controls and much more.

• Know the details of your employees — especially past employees. Document things like vehicle descriptions and license plate numbers.

If you let a worker go, naturally you need to handle it in a delicate and gracious manner, but always keep an ear tuned to area chatter to see if there are any lingering issues.

• Secure the premises. Limit access by gating all entrances, preferably having only one leading to the animal area. Consider a fence or tree-lined perimeter. While they won’t keep criminals out, post security signs regarding unauthorized visitors.

• Secure tools and equipment — take keys out and lock them up. “They’ll break keys off in the ignition or throw them in a field,” Mower adds.  That also happens to GPS units. Put machinery and vehicles in a secured building or parked in a well-lit area.

• Video the contents of your buildings, including the animal, storage and equipment areas, as well as the office. Don't forget to take some outside shots too. It will all come in handy for insurance claims, whether they are related to criminal issues, weather destruction or fire.

• Keep all doors locked when no one’s on site, including internal doors. “If someone were to break into one part of the building, don’t make it easy for him to get into other areas,” Mower says.

Use steel doors and door frames with deadbolt locks. If a door has a window, install a double deadbolt lock. Of course, locks are not guaranteed protection. “If they have time, they’ll get in,” he adds.

• Light up the night — well, at least a significant area. Place security lighting with motion detectors around all building sides. Install some additional lights around the site with time switches.

• Utilize a security camera or surveillance system. This used to involve a big price tag, but today’s cameras run about $150. “It’s cheap insurance,” Mower notes. He points to a producer whose pig inventory numbers weren’t adding up. He installed a camera with time-stamped video, and he discovered an employee was stealing pigs. 

Many cameras will shoot video and time-elapsed still photos. Some operate with motion sensors. Placed at entry points, they can identify vehicles or people as well as activities. “It can cut the time to catch a person in half,” Mower says.

• If you don’t already have one, this is another good reason to draw up an emergency action plan. You can find assistance with this from the National Pork Board at http://tinyurl.com/3tqmcef.

• Get involved with the community and certainly get involved with your neighbors. Share contact information and watch out for each other. Maybe even organize a neighborhood watch; law enforcement can provide guidance with that.

Know that thieves or vandals might “test” your farm. “If you notice little things, that may be what’s going on,” Mower says. “Report suspicious activity or incidents to law enforcement immediately.”

Struthers called within 90 minutes of discovering his case. “We first took care of the animals, then we called law enforcement,” he says. “Be careful not to destroy evidence.”

If you stumble across perpetrators, “do not confront them,” Mower adds. “They could have firearms.”

Rural residents and business owners like to believe criminal activity is not a threat, but the isolated setting, along with rising financial and social issues, may actually make you a bigger target. Better to take precautions to be safe rather than be sorry later.