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Crime On The Farm: Hay Thefts Soar As Drought Deepens

That's a valuable commodity: A hay bale at a farm in Eatonton, Ga., earlier this year. i i

hide captionThat's a valuable commodity: A hay bale at a farm in Eatonton, Ga., earlier this year.

Erik S. Lesser /EPA /Landov
That's a valuable commodity: A hay bale at a farm in Eatonton, Ga., earlier this year.

That's a valuable commodity: A hay bale at a farm in Eatonton, Ga., earlier this year.

Erik S. Lesser /EPA /Landov

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:

Sheriff Bobby Whittington talks with NPR's Renee Montagne

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.

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