When thieves hit the farm store here in St. Jacob, Ill., they don't break open the cash box or make off with the rental equipment. Instead, they head for the line of white tanks at the back lot. Their goal: to siphon off $5 worth of fertilizer.
That's right, fertilizer.
The same stuff that makes corn grow also serves as an ideal solvent for making an illicit drug called methamphetamine, or "meth." Use of the narcotic is soaring in the Corn Belt.
The fertilizer thefts are especially frustrating here in the American heartland, which is used to law and order, because they are almost impossible to police.
The Midwest swims in nitrogen fertilizer. The Corn Belt uses more of the chemically volatile stuff than any other region of the country. And the potential hazards are likely to grow in the next few months as farmers pull fertilizer tanks from farm coops into their isolated cornfields to prepare for spring planting.
Fortunately, farm groups, police, and fertilizer manufacturers and retailers are teaming up to combat the problem.
At the moment, meth-makers are targeting rural coops and fertilizer stores with impunity. Here in St. Jacob, for instance, the Bergmann-Taylor seed and fertilizer store has vainly tried to protect its fertilizer with padlocks, chains, and security lights.
"It didn't make any difference," says assistant manager Patty Taylor. Since August, thieves have hit the store some 20 times.
"That's light," says Walt Longo, whose Paloma, Ill., coop gets hit routinely. And because thieves are siphoning off only a gallon from a 1,000-gallon tank, it's often impossible to tell when thefts occur.
The biggest bugaboo isn't financial. It's safety. Working with pressurized fertilizer tanks is hazardous under normal conditions. At night, with thieves using garden hoses and gallon gas tanks, the risks increase considerably. A suspected meth-maker in Des Moines was severely burned last month when he tried to disconnect a hose too quickly from a fertilizer container.
"Most of these guys are so desperate, they're willing to take any chances," Mr. Longo says. In November, meth manufacturers siphoned off one of his tanks, but couldn't figure out how to close the valve. So they left it running. By 2 a.m., the liquid was spewing out onto the ground. The fire department had to contain the spill.
Meth use is growing in rural America because it's easy to make and powerfully addictive. Except for the fertilizer, all the other ingredients can be bought at any large drugstore. Although it costs about as much as cocaine, it creates a high that last much longer: 18 to 24 hours versus only about 30 minutes for cocaine.
To be sure, most of the heartland's meth still comes from California and northern Mexico.
Officials in Iowa estimate that imports represent 90 percent of the state's meth problem. The federal government has officially designated Iowa and several other Midwestern states as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Still, the number of Midwestern meth labs is growing rapidly. In fiscal 1997, Illinois state police found one meth lab. Now, they're averaging two a week - often in smaller cities like Quincy.
"In areas where it gets a foothold, it oftentimes takes the place of cocaine," says Mstr. Sgt. Bruce Liebe of the Illinois State Police. And "users seem much more dangerous. Very paranoid. Very unpredictable."
Users heavily dependent on the drug sometimes go a week or two without sleep, he adds, making them particularly edgy. That's why farm groups are advising their members not to confront fertilizer thieves but rather to call local authorities about any suspicious behavior.
Besides education programs to alert farmers, law-enforcement and farm groups are working to stiffen penalties for meth manufacture. Bills before the Illinois legislature would make creation of the drug a felony, for example. In Iowa, which began experiencing fertilizer thefts three or four years ago, Gov. Tom Vilsack has proposed a $4 million strategy, including hiring more narcotics agents and mandating life sentences for those who make or sell meth to minors.
A national task force is also looking at various lock technologies to better secure the fertilizer tanks. And two teams of chemists are investigating additives that would make fertilizer unusable in meth production.
So far, however, there are no breakthroughs, says Randy Allman, vice president of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa and a member of the task force. Experts worry that if they find a way to lock up the small fertilizer tanks effectively, desperate addicts will take a sledgehammer and knock the valves off the tanks, creating a huge hazard.
So coop managers and farmers appear to have little choice but to watch and wait for a solution to the night-siphoning. "The product that we're using to grow food is being used in drug production," says Longo at the Paloma, Ill., coop. "And that's what irritates me most of all."