Reports of vandalism to farm equipment, buildings and at livestock construction sites have been on the rise in Iowa. Threatening phone calls and letters also have surfaced. The message sent condemns the bigger-is-better approach to raising livestock, specifically cattle and pigs. In some cases cows have been shot and killed, in other cases fires, such as the one that took down a 340-head nursery are suspected to be arson.
Law enforcement officials are considering whether the acts are random acts or selected and focused. "We don't have any trends that we've identified in the past year or two that would suggest there is an organized effort," says Jim Saunders, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
Since August, the Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers has identified at least seven significant acts of violence and threats aimed at farmers. Moat targeted pork producers who've expanded their operations or pursued government permits to do so, but cattle producers have also been victims, says Aaron Putze, executive director of the coalition.
"Farm vandalism on some level is not uncommon, but we've certainly noticed an escalation in the more violent and threatening reports," Putze says. "Perhaps farmers are more comfortable reporting incidents these days. But the real question is what's the motivation?"
Of course certain segments of the public argue that large-scale livestock operations threaten the environment and public health, depress property values and push out producers operating "small" systems. Officials suspect that the recent upsurge in violent acts my actually be coming from local citizens.
"People locally are promoting a lot of anger and misinformation," Mike Lawrinenko, a La Porte City, Iowa, pork producer, told Forbes news. He has received threats last fall as he started to expand his operation-- a small fire was even involved. "There was a lot of harassment," he says. "All we're trying to do is make our farm more profitable."
As Mark Partridge, a professor at the Swank Program for Rural-Urban Policy at The Ohio State University, notes that protesters can range from urban transplants to residents of nearby towns and retired farmers who resent the changing industry. He points out that in virtually any state, you will find high levels of anger against large-scale ag-production operations. Yet violence and strong intimidation such as those surfacing in Iowa are rare.
Last year in South Dakota, four county commissioners who voted in favor of a dairy farm permit had nails scattered across their driveways. An Indiana farmer reported last year that his locked well was poisoned while he pursued an expansion to his dairy operation.
No arrests have been made in the Iowa cases.
In the case involving the cattle being shot, the farmer had just applied for a permit to expand. He later received a call with the message "Now I guess you know we mean business.'"