ATLANTA — At the end of a dirt road in rural South Carolina, a lonely truck careered up through the red-clay ruts and into the woods.
The man, wearing chaps and wielding a chain saw, who emerged from the cab worked for himself, state foresters say. But the trees weren't his. Nor were the small profits he made selling the hauled timber to sawyers in the valley. Despite the whine of his saw, for years no one heard these trees fall.
The man, arrested earlier this year, was ax-cut-deep in a growing problem for America's farm belt: rural commodity theft, or "plaid-collar crime." From lush Hawaii to the Carolina plains, artichoke absconders, nut nappers, tree thieves, and even cattle rustlers are plucking, picking, hauling, and siphoning commodities from diesel to mangosteens at impressive rates. Loss is a familiar concept to a farmer. But such audacious heists have prompted many to go on the offensive to police America's wide-open spaces.
"The vulnerability of farms is legendary," says Bill Yoshimoto, the supervising attorney for a rural crimes task force in Tulare County, Calif. "They're just wide- open places for crooks to come. And crooks are going to go where the pickings are easy and where the prices are favorable."
Several commodities are particularly in demand because their prices are increasing. Almond prices jumped 70 cents a pound this summer, and beef prices remain high. Prices for high-grade lumber continue to climb. And rural backwoods areas have been hit by the copper theft epidemic across the country after prices peaked at $2.80 a pound this summer.
"If somebody can get [a commodity] for nothing, then it's a real good deal," says Ken Cabe, a senior forester with the South Carolina Forestry Commission in Columbia.
The losses from farm thefts in California, Mississippi, and South Carolina run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to estimates from law enforcement officers. But since only one of 10 farm crimes is reported, some say total annual losses are about $1 billion nationwide.
These days it's relatively easy to steal commodities without getting caught, Mr. Yoshimoto says. For one, farms are bumping up against suburbs, shortening the time it takes potential crooks to get their hands on freestanding tanks of diesel, barrels of expensive fungicides, and rolls of copper wire. Oftentimes, thieves can operate in plain view since the heavy equipment and tractor-trailers they use to carry out their crimes are common in these parts. Internet trading has also cut down on paperwork, making scofflaws tougher to track down.
Farm-thief profiles run the gamut from a 24-year-old mother of two arrested last month for timber theft in Mt. Croghan, S.C., to the most common farm thief: a 40-year-old white male, investigators say. The motives are as varied as the crimes.
"Somebody who is stealing copper wire to make a quick buck for a quick fix is very different from somebody who is masterminding a plot to steal hundreds of thousands of pounds of nuts across county lines," says Danielle Rau, a rural-crime prevention specialist at the California Farm Bureau in Sacramento.
In Alabama, where pine forests cover an area nearly equivalent to all of New England timber losses can be staggering, Mr. Yoshimoto says. Last year, Texas investigators recovered more than 5,000 stolen cattle worth more than $3.5 million. Twelve tractor-trailers carrying almonds have been stolen in California this year, the latest heist taking place in San Joaquin County Monday.
"You've got crews coming in and knocking down 10 acres of timber or 40 acres of prime plums, and then you have some on the other end receiving this timber and fruit and injecting it into the commercial stream somewhere," says Yoshimoto. "This level of sophistication has only become prominent in the last 10 years, and we've noticed it tremendously in the last five years."
Historically, farmers and growers have shoved their hands in their pockets and privately fumed. "We don't feel like we have a lot of protection in the first place," says Scott Phippens, a San Joaquin Valley almond grower who had 88,000 pounds of almonds stolen from him this summer. "We're defeated the minute theft happens. The problem is society; there's just far more hideous crimes being committed, and so this is nothing."
That's changing, with influential politicians such as Jeff Denham, a Republican state senator from the Central Valley. He wrote "our food supply is under attack in a recent op-ed article in Ag Alert, a newsletter published by the California Farm Bureau.
The 14-county Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network (ACTION) in Visalia, Calif., has a collection of motion detectors and low-light cameras that farmers can borrow at no expense to try to catch thieves.
Some farmers are working on ways to brand individual vegetables such as artichokes to thwart theft.
Others are finding that the ticket to stopping theft is through having a paper trail. In Hawaii, a law enacted this year requires that receipts be issued for all commodities that are purchased. And coffee buyers must pay by check instead of cash.
Thefts have quickly gone down as a result. "We took a proactive approach and so far it's worked," says Mitch Roth, a Hawaii County prosecutor.