Archived Story

Rural security firm stands guard over empty farms [UPDATED]

Published 10:13am Friday, August 17, 2012 Updated 12:15pm Friday, August 17, 2012

By Jennifer Vogel

MPR News — 91.5 FM

As Guy Adams pulls up the driveway to his house on the wooded edge of Lake Pulaski, a small wireless camera peers from his bedroom window, registering his arrival. Additional cameras point at his boat and back deck.

“That’s so I can see who’s barbecuing,” quips Adams, general manager of Melrose-based Heartland Security, a firm that specializes in security systems for rural and small town properties, including farms and cabins.

Inside, wireless sensors keep track of who comes and goes, information fed to his smartphone. The phone also controls a motion detector, the security alarm, the lock on the front door and his home’s lights and thermostat. He can tap in anytime to view images from the security cameras, all of which face the outside of his house. “I have three daughters,” he said, “and I didn’t want to creep them out.”

Adams’ interactive system is a state-of-the-art answer to public safety problems experienced in many rural areas, and Heartland’s business is booming.

Given the often sparse populations in outstate Minnesota, there can be few people around to keep an eye on property and possessions. Farms have gotten larger as they’ve become more industrialized, leaving unattended acres littered with tempting equipment and metal parts. In lake country, cabins sit empty all winter. And small town main streets can empty out after sundown. On top of that, dollars for police and sheriff services have been reduced by a struggling economy and the attendant city and county budget cuts.

People in rural areas tend to describe themselves as self sufficient. Gun ownership is more prevalent than in cities and neighbors watch out for each other. As one member of MPR’s Public Insight Network from near Houston in southeastern Minnesota emailed recently, “If you can’t deal with whatever comes down the road or over the hill then you should go somewhere else.”

Yet, even the self sufficient can’t be home all the time. And that’s where Heartland Security comes in. The company fills the gap between self reliance and dependence on law enforcement, whose response times in rural areas can be long.

Most of the company’s nearly 7,000 customers in Iowa and Minnesota subscribe to services more basic than Adams’ sophisticated system. They sign up for alarm protection on machine shed doors, fan monitors in chicken barns, hot and cold sensors in farm houses and seasonal cabins that detect fires and blown furnace pilots, someone to respond to medical alert buttons.

Heartland was formed in 1999 by a group of about 10 electrical cooperatives, which delved into the security business for the same reasons they entered the power business back in the day.

“Nobody cared about the farmer,” Adams said. The bigger security companies “were not that interested in serving rural areas. The co-op mentality is we care about the little guys who want the best technology, too.”

The company, with close to $2.8 million in revenue in 2011, now includes 14 cooperatives and nearly double the number of customers it had in 2008. About 2,000 subscribers take just the company’s medical alert service, and medical distress calls make up the bulk of call traffic. But the majority of customers pay for a combination of services, including fire and security, in part thanks to high metal prices that drive rural copper theft and prominent crimes like last year’s rash of hog thefts in western and southern Minnesota.

Overall, rural crime in Minnesota has been declining for years, but thefts remain a nagging issue. Rural larcenies rose 4 percent nationwide in 2011, according to FBI figures, at the same time urban rates were relatively flat. Rural statistics for Minnesota in 2011 aren’t yet available, but 2010 showed a slight uptick in thefts.

Sheriff Evan Verbrugge’s department patrols the entirety of Rock County in southwestern Minnesota, including the city of Luverne, which disbanded its police department in 1998. He reports a stream of metal thefts, especially on large farms. “I think copper has picked up in the last year or so,” he said. “Last winter, it was really prevalent. We noticed [thieves] were going out to the bin sites, where all they have are corn bins and dryers on an acreage. They go out and take that stuff. It’s in the electrical.”

“The mom and dad are moving into town,” Verbrugge said, “and getting rid of the acreages and the son or a conglomerate is buying the land and tearing down the house and there is nobody to keep an eye on things.” The fact that his deputies are stretched thin doesn’t help. “It’s easier to do burglaries in a rural area because of the staff,” he said. “We have one person on for the whole county at a certain period of time. Your visibility is going to be smaller. With technology the way it is, people can say, ‘Here comes a squad,’ and they just hide. And then they do their thing.”

Property thefts drive security system sales, according to Adams. “That’s why people want them. I’ve seen people ride in on snowmobiles” to rob a farm, he said. Or thieves will pull halfway down the driveway to case the property. “I think it happens a lot, enough that it raises concerns for farmers. They’ve lost gas and tools.”

“I USED TO WORRY MORE”

Mark Smith’s farm near Lakefield, close to the Iowa border, has been in the family for almost a century. But Smith doesn’t live there, nor does he farm. He lives in Buffalo 170 miles away and works as a computer programmer for an insurance company, which leaves 160 acres of empty land, barns and outbuildings largely unobserved.

“I used to work on it in the summers when I was going through junior high and high school,” said Smith of the farm, where his father, who recently died, was born and raised. “I still go down there quite a bit. I plan on retiring down there if I can, if I can ever retire.”

Given that Smith is, as he jokingly puts it, an “absentee land owner,” it made sense to get a security system from Heartland in the late 1990s, not long after the company formed. “We have alarms on the doors and windows on the house,” said Smith, “and a motion detector in the house. We have the garage wired into it. We built a new pole barn five years ago that we also had wired into the system. That’s where we keep the heavy equipment.” There are no cameras on the property. But Smith does have a freeze alarm that once saved him thousands of dollars in plumbing costs by signaling that the furnace pilot light had gone out.

When an alarm, of whatever type, is triggered at a Heartland property, the signal is usually routed to a beefy, high-tech response center in Rockford, owned by another cooperative, Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association. Workers there will usually try to verify that the alarm is legitimate by calling the house or business and trying to reach the property owner. They might call a neighbor, too, depending on a customer’s wishes. Situations deemed serious enough are turned over to police or sheriff’s departments.

False alarms are minimal, said Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, who thinks security systems are a good idea. “A lot of the locations we’re talking about are somewhat remote, at the end of the road. It’s not a bad idea to have an alarm system. I’ve talked to a number of people who steal and they say it is a deterrent. A dog is a deterrent too if it barks a lot. But you have to feed him and bring him to the vet, whereas the alarm is just there.”

Smith’s farm was broken into more than once before he had the alarm system installed. “The first time, in the early 1990s must have been kids,” he said. “I kept a lot of hunting equipment down there, camouflage stuff. No guns, but I did have my bow down there. They took that. They took all the decoys and they took ammunition. We had a big console TV, so I can see why they didn’t take that. At various times, we were missing a lot of things down there. Since we got the security system, that has stopped.”

“I used to worry more,” Smith said. “At one point, I’d pulled just about everything I had out of there.” But now he can store personal items, though he still says he won’t leave weapons behind. “I keep more stuff down there than I used to.”

Installing the alarm, he said, “gave us some comfort.”

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