When Bruce Raasch looks back on it all, hints of potential trouble loomed before an arsonist’s blaze engulfed his farm shop one winter night in 2006, dangerously close to his hog buildings and his home.

“We weren’t aware of the warning signs, but it’s very important for pork producers to be aware of ag violence,” says Raasch, 60, a custom feeder who has been farming nearly 40 years by Odebolt, Iowa, and finishes approximately 10,000 pigs per year.

For an isolated country road, a lot of strange traffic had been passing by the Raasch’s farm, especially at night. On the Sunday morning prior to the fire on Jan. 22, 2006, the hired man placed an unusual call to the Raasch family, who also runs R7 Trucking and hauls livestock. “What were you doing with the feed lines in buildings three and four?” he asked. “Both were shut off at the motors.” Raasch was stumped, since no one should have been in the barns to flip the switches off.

After the problem was fixed, things quieted down until that night. After Raasch left his farm shop around and went into the house, he noticed the sound of a vehicle speeding up the gravel road and heading off to the west. When a strange noise outside caught his attention less than 15 minutes later, Raasch was shocked to see flames shooting from the shop. The 50-foot by 90-foot building, along with thousands of dollars worth of tractors, equipment and tools, were destroyed by a blaze that burned within 100 feet of the family’s five swine barns.

When the fire marshal arrived the next day and confirmed this was an arson case (based on evidence, including Raasch’s oxyacetylene torch, which had been turned on full blast near the fire’s origin), neighbors and community members were as shocked as the Raasch family. Area law enforcement investigations found no evidence of animosity toward the well-respected farm family. In recent years, however, an activist group has been active in this part of northwest Iowa.

“Whoever did this knew what they were doing,” Raasch says, adding that no one has been charged in the crime. “I asked why the vandals didn’t hit our hog barns. The fire marshal said people who target farmers don’t want to harm the animals, but they will try to cripple your operation.”

Vandals escalate violence levels
Farm families who raise livestock are reporting increased incidences of ag violence directed toward them, their family members and their property, according to the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers (www.supportfarmers.com).

“These families are just trying to make a living by farming, but we’re hearing more reports of violence or threats against them from a variety of sources,” says Aaron Putze, the coalition’s executive director. “That’s why we’re looking at new ways to educate the public about modern agriculture and what rural living involves.”

Ongoing cases of violence against pork producers highlight the need for action. On Jan. 12, 2007, a suspicious fire destroyed a 370-head hog nursery building that Dan and June Muff, and their son Andy, operate near Ventura, Iowa. It was the second fire detected on the farm in less than two months. The Muffs had been the target of periodic vandalism and harassment, including shotgun blasts to the property and paintball strikes at the construction site where Andy was building a new 2,500-head swine barn three miles north of Clear Lake, Iowa. Livestock activists also erected a billboard adjacent to the farm, which opened for business in October 2006, accusing Andy of “brutally murdering” his community.

“People don’t understand modern pork production,” says Andy Muff, 28, who recently married and plans to build a new home on his farm. “When misinformation and rumors get started, this escalates anger toward the ag industry.” 

In Muff’s case, a local newspaper reported that the young farmer’s new swine barn would hold 25,000 finishing pigs. To refute this misinformation, Muff met with the Ventura City Council, along with other area city councils and local citizens. After acknowledging their concerns about air and water quality and sharing science-based research, he stressed his commitment to responsible livestock production and explained how a modern pork operation is a long-term asset to the area. The young farmer and his family also hosted an open house at his new swine barn last October — nearly 300 area residents attended. Since then, the Muffs have reported no ag violence problems.

“Life has gone on, and these episodes haven’t depressed my enthusiasm for swine production,” says Muff, whose closest neighbors live about 3,000 feet from his swine barn. “Farming is my future.” 

Take control
To reduce the chances of ag violence, Muff offers some advice to pork producers.

  • Do your research. If you’re thinking about building a new swine barn, talk to your neighbors ahead of time, site the barn properly and investigate the latest ways to control odor.

    Muff worked with Steven Hoff, an Iowa State University ag engineer, on air modeling programs to ensure that the new barn’s location would minimize any impact on the neighbors and the surrounding communities. In addition to planting trees near the barn, Muff continues to investigate pit additives, biofilters and other tools to limit odor. 

  • Respect others. Realize that your neighbors will be concerned about odor and property values. “People have the right to know what’s going on, so respect that,” Muff says. “Even though it’s not always easy to remain calm, always conduct yourself professionally, and others will respect you in the end.”
  • Contact law enforcement, when necessary. Even if a suspicious incident seems trivial, document everything. Prepare a description of the incident, including when and where it occurred. By documenting issues and details, law enforcement officials might be able to identify patterns that you would easily overlook. Whenever you suspect any illegal activity, be sure to contact local law enforcement as soon as possible.

Ag violence is not exclusive to Iowa. Producers in other states have faced encounters, as well. It may seem unnecessary, but pork producers need to share ideas and information on suspicious events and concerns. As an individual, you need to know how to protect your operation.

Take a Bite Out of Crime

Ag violence can take a variety of forms, from threatening, anonymous phone calls to destruction of property. “The biggest problem is getting people to report these incidents,” says Randy Marchant, a sheriff in Adair County, Iowa, who has had to deal with a variety of ag violence issues in recent months. “Remember, harassment and vandalism are illegal.”

Ag violence can be driven by anyone, not just people living in your rural area. “People today are mobile and perpetrators can come from anywhere, not just the surrounding area,” Marchant adds. He offers these tips to help protect you and your livelihood:

  • Don’t become an easy target. Lock barns, sheds and other important buildings on the farm. Also, take your keys out of your vehicle when the vehicle is unattended.
  • Keep an eye out. See that the farm site is well-lit. As security technology becomes more affordable, consider installing motion-activated cameras at your farm. To determine where to put the cameras, think like a criminal. Where would vandals likely enter your farm at night, what buildings might they target and what doors would they probably enter and exit if they trespassed?
  • Take an inventory. Walk through your buildings with a video camera to create an inventory of their contents. This evidence could become vital in case of a disaster.
  • Report suspicious incidents or criminal acts when they occur. Law enforcement welcomes your calls, Marchant says. “Remember, an effective investigation is tough if you wait too long after the fact. If something seems suspicious, report it.”