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Crime On The Farm: Hay Thefts Soar As Drought Deepens

Dec 4, 2012
Originally published on December 5, 2012 9:09 am

Your crime fodder ... sorry, make that blotter ... news of the day.

From St. Louis:

"As if it's not bad enough that Missouri farmers are trying to survive the worst drought in decades, now many of them are facing a new problem that's costing them big bucks. Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst says thieves are actually targeting those big bundles of hay that are left out in fields prior to being harvested, hauling them off and selling the valuable commodity." (CBS St. Louis)

Butler County, Kansas:

"Butler County sheriff's deputies are being ordered off the highways and onto county roads as they try to stop a big problem. Thieves are stealing thousands of dollars in hay bales." (KAKE-TV)

Butte County, California:

"Crops like hay have ... become a major target. 'It's happened to three different growers of ours, and some of them have been hit two or three times,' according to Custom Hay Operator Carl Martin. He says the number of thefts rose with the price of hay, and now that the crop is worth over $200 a ton, those growers are losing $200 to $300 of product every time they get ripped off." (KHSL-TV)

And earlier this year, from Frederick, Okla.:

"Two Tillman County men are facing felony charges of Knowingly Concealing and Withholding Stolen Property after their arrest for stealing hay from a local farmer. Sheriff Bobby Whittington states that the farmer suspected he was missing some round bales from a field northwest of Grandfield. A GPS tracking device was placed in one of the bales left in the field and when the alleged thieves drove off with the bale, it sent a text message to Sheriff Whittington's cellphone stating that the bale was moving." (Frederick Press-Leader)

You can see where this story's going. The deep drought across much of the nation, and an economy that's been struggling to get going in recent years appear to have combined to make hay quite valuable and quite attractive to thieves. So much so, in fact, that the sheriff in Oklahoma put something of a needle (that GPS tracking device) in a haystack to crack one case.

Update at 12:30 p.m. ET. Sheriff Whittington On How He Nabbed The Suspects:

The GPS tracker, Whittington told NPR's Renee Montagne late Tuesday morning, was placed in a bale at a farm where he suspected there would be more thefts. It "was programmed to text my cellphone whenever it left a certain area," he said. "I received text about 9:40, 9:45 p.m." He called an under sheriff, who got on a computer and tracked the moving bale.

"He was able to relay to me where the bale was at," Whittington said. "I arrived in time to see the suspect vehicle kind of drop the bale off behind a house." He watched as the vehicle left, and followed to see if it might return to the farmer's field.

Trailing behind with his car's lights off, the sheriff says he "observed him pull into the farmer's field ... and snatch another bale."

The suspects tried to tell the sheriff that it was their bale of hay. "I said, that's not what the GPS says," Whittington told Renee.

Then one of the men, "kind of dropped his old head and said 'well, can I just take it back and not go to jail?' " Whittington recounted.

"I said no."

In his county, Whittington says, the price of a bale of grass hay has gone from $15 to $25 before the drought to between $65 and $70. A bale of alfalfa has risen from $45 to $60 before the drought to between $140 and $150.

More from Renee's conversation with the sheriff is due on Wednesday's Morning Edition. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. After the interview airs, we'll add it to the top of this post.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Hay is a critical source of food for cattle, sheep and other livestock, especially important as the winter months close in. And given the harsh drought in recent years, it's increasingly scarce and expensive. In fact, the price of hay has reached record levels, and reports of hay theft have been on the rise. To find out more, we called up Bobby Whittington, the sheriff of Tillman County, Oklahoma. He and his three deputies are responsible for 900 square miles of row land.

Welcome to the program.

SHERIFF BOBBY WHITTINGTON: Thank you, ma'am.

MONTAGNE: So you, yourself, have seen a big rise in hay theft there in Tillman County.

WHITTINGTON: Well, the exceptional drought that we have been in the past couple of years has made hay a very sought after premium here.

MONTAGNE: Are they stealing them for their own use, or to sell? And if to sell, what's a hay bale worth?

WHITTINGTON: Well, they're doing both. A normal bale prior to the drought - depending on what it was - grass hay for 15, 20, $25. Alfalfa was running you 45 to $60. And now grass hay in this area is running at 65, 70, if you can find it. And Alfalfa's running as high as 140 to $150 a bale.

MONTAGNE: And it's particularly easy to steal? I mean, I think of - and I come from a family of, actually, ranchers in western Nebraska. I think of hay as being big bale, and sitting right out there in the field.

WHITTINGTON: Yes, ma'am. Most of the produces here in Tillman County, once they have cut or harvested a field and the hay is baled, they'll stack it on the edge of the road at the field.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's very convenient, right on the edge of the road.

WHITTINGTON: Yes, ma'am. And it's easy access for the hay thieves, and easy getaway.

MONTAGNE: Are there any precautions that farmers and ranchers can take?

WHITTINGTON: Well, they need to put as many gates or obstructions between the roadway and the hay as possible. And they need to check it periodically, make sure that they put 50 bales in the field, that there's 50 bales there. You know, count it. Make sure it's there.

MONTAGNE: They can't brand it or put dye in it, or anything like that?

WHITTINGTON: No. That's kind of hard to do with the mass production the way is done, to put any special markings on it.

MONTAGNE: I gather that you decided, though, to do something rather creative, and that was to put a GPS device inside some hay.

WHITTINGTON: A farmer here in Tillman County sustained several thefts from the same field. And we decided to put a GPS in one of the bales and see whether the thief would take the bale or not. And they did.

MONTAGNE: And so you followed that bale of hay?

WHITTINGTON: Yes, ma'am. Basically, we - the night that this happened, the GPS was programmed to text my cell phone whenever it left a certain area. And I received a text about 9:40, 9:45 p.m. And I immediately called my under-sheriff and had him get on the computer so he could track the location of the bale. And he was able to relay to me where the bale was at.

And I arrived in time to see the suspect vehicle kind of drop the bale off behind a house. And then the vehicle left, and I was following it. And I decided to see whether they would go back for another bale. So I followed the vehicle down a country road with my lights out and observed him pull into the farmer's field who'd been reporting the theft and snatch another bale and drive off, at which time they were stopped.

MONTAGNE: So you sort of nabbed them in the act?

WHITTINGTON: Yes, ma'am.

MONTAGNE: What did they do?

WHITTINGTON: Well, they were kind of shocked. They were kind of defiant. When I first stopped them, they wanted to know the reason why I stopped them. And I told them that we needed to talk about the hay bale they had on their vehicle. They said, well, it's my hay bale. I said, it's not what the GPS says. He kind of dropped his old head and said, well, can I just take it back and not go to jail? And I said no.

MONTAGNE: My first thought when I heard about this, is I figured out in the West, or in a place like Oklahoma, stealing a bale of hay, sort of close to something like hay rustling, I mean, is really serious. What are the penalties?

WHITTINGTON: The penalties can be three to five years in a state penitentiary.

MONTAGNE: So that's pretty serious.

WHITTINGTON: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Bobby Whittington is the sheriff of Tillman County, Oklahoma. Thank you very much for talking with us.

WHITTINGTON: Thank you, ma'am. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.