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'Hog Days' to hog farms: Kewanee's ongoing partnership with pigs

The state of Illinois recognizes Kewanee as the hog capital of the world. But what does that mean today, when pork production in the county has been surpassed?

KEWANEE, Ill. — As part of WQAD's Hometown Tours, our crew headed out to Henry County to broadcast live from Kewanee, Illinois. But we need to address the elephant -- or, should we say, the pig — in the room: it's the hog capital of the world! 

The Illinois state legislature bestowed the title upon the town back in 1948. Nowadays, the denomination still exists, although the reality of pig farming around Kewanee has changed. 

According to the Illinois Pork Producers, Henry County had 64 hog farms as of 2019. While that generates more than $55 million in sales for the county, it's only in the top 20 counties in Illinois. 

"It was the hog capital of the world one day - it's not today. But I mean, it's still remembered," said Lance DeDecker, a fourth-generation farmer located just outside of Cambridge, IL. 

The DeDeckers have been farming in Henry County for more than 75 years and were recently named the 2023 Illinois Pork Producer Family of the Year

Today, the farm deals with anywhere from 7,000 to 7,500 heads of hog each year. Every one of those pigs will grow between 275 and 300 pounds. 

"A pig is a very... mischievous animal," DeDecker said. "It's always a challenge. Every day is something different! You walk into that barn and there could be anything going on in there." 

As DeDecker explained, there's a hog heritage throughout Henry County. And perhaps the best way to remember it is through the annual Hog Days Festival in Kewanee. 

"It's a festival of tradition," said Mike Komnick, co-chair of the hog days committee. "The festival as we know it can be traced back to 1954." 

Lining the walls of today's hog days headquarters are black and white photos from the last 70 years of celebrations. One memorable snapshot commemorates the first (and only) time the festival dug up parts of downtown Kewanee's roads to make barbecue pits. 

"We would not do that today," Komnick added.

An estimated 50,000 people travel to Kewanee over Labor Day weekend for the annual festival. Organizers estimate it takes between five and 8,000 pounds of charcoal to barbecue 5,000 pork chops and 8,000 pork patties each year. 

The weekend features music, games, races, food and plenty of pig paintings, costumes and memorabilia. 

"Obviously we may not be producing the world's supply of hogs anymore," Komnick said. "But you know, we have that heritage and we built on that heritage. We are still, by far, an ag community."  

So while some things have come and gone from the days Kewanee reigned as 'hog capital of the world,' both the pigs and their farmers are still here, despite growing concerns. Today's farmers are battling rising inflation and soaring costs of feed, technology, equipment and more. 

"I think in the next 10 to 15, 20 years down the road, I think the ownership of the pigs that's in the barn is going to be harder," DeDecker said. "The sow units are getting bigger and bigger and the ownership, I think, is eventually-- like they would like to keep and own the pigs and eventually we could be a customer grower for somebody else. I think that's kind of the way the industry is going. It's just more diversified." 

A community built on its hog heritage, now hoping to pass it along to the next generation. 

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