MINNEAPOLIS — In southern Minnesota's hog country, homes are seldom locked. But the barns are being bolted tight, guarded by surveillance cameras, motion detectors and alarms.
Until the thieves who stole nearly 750 pigs from two farms are caught, it won't be assumed that every loading truck pulling into a farm before dawn is above suspicion.
"Four years ago, when the hog industry was losing money, we'd joke about locking the barns and walking away," Doug Wenner said from his hog farm west of St. Peter, Minn. "Now you lock the doors and wish somebody was there 24/7."
Hundreds of thousands of hogs a week are processed nationwide, and Minnesota is the third-leading producer in the country, so "you wouldn't expect people to become paranoid" so quickly, said Jim Compart, president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association.
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"But this just isn't normal. It's going to force communities to band together," Compart said.
So who stole 150 hogs, worth more than $30,000, from Ryan Bode's farm in Lafayette, Minn., last month? And, in Kandiyohi County, Minn., how did 594 hogs, worth more than $100,000, vanish in August?
Someone had to know that the animals were market size — 250 to 275 pounds apiece — and where to bring them, said Tim Waibel, a Courtland, Minn., farmer who raises 24,000 hogs a year.
"This is somebody who knows hogs and knows the area," Waibel said. "It's not somebody from 60 miles away."
Many farms already had security systems in place, said Dave Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. Hog farmer Brandon Schafer of Goodhue, Minn., said that some barns also have time locks that must be signaled 48 to 72 hours in advance to gain entrance, to help monitor the potential for disease that could be brought in.
"More farms are now installing cameras," he said. "There's definitely a heightened awareness. These two cases have created nationwide interest."
Reuben Bode has been raising hogs in the area for 40 years and brought his son, Ryan, into the business. Reuben, who can't remember ever losing a hog to theft, thinks there were two groups of thieves involved — those who stole the hogs and farmers who are holding them, possibly for months, before bringing them to market in another state.
Compart of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association says an arrangement with meat packers would have to be made two weeks in advance of delivery.
"It's an interesting twist because it tells you how these robberies may have been set up over a period of time," said Compart, who has 600 sows on his Nicollet, Minn., farm and has been raising hogs for 35 years.
Authorities remain baffled, said Nicollet County sheriff's investigator Marc Chadderdon. There have been few leads.
On Aug. 14, a break-in was reported at a hog farm in Kandiyohi County, but no animals were taken. The pigs there were only 100 pounds each, far too small for market, Chadderdon said.
But about five days later, 594 mature hogs were stolen at another farm in the county, near Lake Lillian. That theft occurred possibly only a day after the first one, Chadderdon said.
At the Bode farm, thieves cut a plastic ventilating fence to gain entry to a barn. Farmers such as Waibel live near their barns. Ryan Bode also has a home near one of his barns, but the Bodes have 4,000 animals housed in eight hog facilities.
The theft occurred at a barn 100 yards from a rental home. A couple occupies that home but is sometimes gone during the week, Reuben Bode said. The barn has a security system, but the alarm never went off.
Farmers are convinced more than one thief had been at work.
"You couldn't just walk into a barn and take 150 pigs out in 10 minutes," Wenner said. "It would take 30 to 45 minutes, at least, if you had a few people working the hogs."
Another theory: The hogs might have been stolen by a farmer desperately trying to fulfill a contract. Chadderdon said hogs can be transported for 12 hours without needing water, enabling thieves to bring them well out of state.
"We know that somebody knew these pigs were the right size to go to market and that these people walked through fields to get to the barns," Waibel said. "It's crazy.
"We have motion sensors on our barns and doors that trigger alarms. It gives us a sense of some security. But believe me, I'm locking my barns."