STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This week, we've been hearing all about the growth in multimillion-dollar agriculture fraud cases. That growth has prompted the federal government to step up its policing of farm country. The US Department of Agriculture once relied on the honor system, but now looks over the farmer's shoulder to make sure he's not cheating. To do this, investigators rely on an array of high-tech techniques. Here's NPR's John Burnett.
JOHN BURNETT reporting:
John Brown is an agricultural private investigator in a tiny but busy field these days. As the only satellite imagery farm detective in the country, he's testified as an expert witness in 26 cases over the past six years, mostly for the government prosecuting farmers.
Mr. JOHN BROWN (Agricultural Private Investigator): When I saw the extent of this fraud, it was alarming to me. I couldn't believe the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars that was being wasted.
BURNETT: Brown and his daughter work out of a home office on a tree-lined street in Columbia, Missouri. He downloads photographs of the Earth's surface taken by Landsat satellites orbiting 400 miles high. Then he analyzes the infrared images of crop fields to determine whether the farmer actually planted what he claims he did. A big man with a trim moustache wearing hiking shorts, Brown sits at his desktop computer and points to a plot tinted red amid a checkerboard of fields.
Mr. BROWN: This is a PowerPoint presentation that I use in the courtroom. This was presented to a federal jury in Texas, and this is a satellite image showing a 640-acre section that was claimed to have been planted with cotton.
BURNETT: This is a case he worked on two years ago. A north Texas farmer was convicted of submitting false insurance claims for crops he never planted, and for which he collected more than $1/2 million in insurance.
Mr. BROWN: But in fact, from this satellite image, we're able to show that the field wasn't even plowed. It wasn't planted to cotton or green sorghum.
BURNETT: Brown is also a former horticulture professor whose grandfather was a dairy farmer. He says he gets no joy out of taking the stand and presenting evidence that sends a farmer to prison.
Mr. BROWN: I see the wife in the courtroom sitting behind her husband, who she loves dearly, and I see that man, I see his hands shaking. You know, I love farmers. I've been working with them virtually all my life, and when I see a farm family broken apart, it's hard for me.
BURNETT: Alarmed at the level of cheating going on in the nation's Federal Crop Insurance Program, Congress passed legislation in 2000 that instructed the USDA to get tough on dishonest farmers. The agency that oversees crop insurance, the Risk Management Agency, contracted with a data mining company near Ft. Worth to analyze millions and millions of farm records to look for anomalies. Bert Little is director of that firm, the Center for Agribusiness Excellence, located on the campus of Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas.
Mr. BERT LITTLE (Center for Agribusiness Excellence): Let's say there's a fictitious county where you have 10,000 people who are farming corn, and out of that 10,000 people only one person has a disastrous loss and he's right in the middle of all of the other people who are having great yields, and it just doesn't fit.
(Soundbite of typing at computer)
BURNETT: Searching for the most egregious cases, his data analysts identified about 2,000 farmers every year with questionable insurance claims. When these farmers received a letter telling them they were on a watch list, a remarkable thing happened. The amount of insurance they filed for dropped more than $300 million over the next four years.
Mr. LITTLE: If they know that we're watching, then the next year they either file no claim or a very small claim.
BURNETT: So why would a farmer, after receiving a letter like this, stop making claims for crop losses?
Mr. LITTLE: We think that it's because they may not have been doing business completely honestly and if they know that they're going to receive a visit, they try to tidy up.
BURNETT: The USDA estimates a hundred and sixty million dollars was paid out last year in false crop insurance claims. Data mining is most useful as a pointer that creates a list of suspicious farmers who must then be ground truthed. This corn field in Colorado County, Texas, about an hour west of Houston, is in sad shape. The stalks are stunted and the corn shriveled. This is the fifth year in a row this farmer has filed an insurance claim on a bad crop, and the government wants to know why. Robert O'Conner is a senior investigator in the Dallas office of the Risk Management Agency. He has a few questions for the farmer.
Mr. ROBERT O'CONNER (Risk Management Agency): What was your weed control? What was your pest control, you know? Do you have the records to support that? And with that information compared to observation of the crop conditions, you can make a determination, well, I believe, yes, this producer had made an effort to produce a crop and due to natural causes he had a loss.
BURNETT: A loss adjustor and an insurance claims specialist are out here weighing the cobs to see how underweight the corn is.
(Soundbite of corn being weighed)
Unidentified Man #1: There's 10, 21.
Unidentified Man #2: Twenty-one even.
BURNETT: It appears this crop was stressed by drought and the farmer will have a legitimate loss. In years past, a farmer who ripped off the program was treated with kid gloves by the government, but O'Conner says those days are over.
Mr. O'CONNER: Well, we're getting harder on the fraud and abuse now. We're going after them. We're putting them in jail. We're requiring restitution. So the penalties are stiffer.
BURNETT: Everyone interviewed for this series--investigators, prosecutors, farmers, watchdogs and government regulators--say the number of farmers who cheat the system is relatively small, but the schemes, which have grown larger in recent years, have done great damage to the many producers for whom crop insurance is critical.
Mr. DAYLON ALTHOF (Farmer): Without insurance, we in west Texas would not be able to farm. We have to have that protection.
BURNETT: Daylon Althof is a Nolan County farmer in west Texas who was a member of the local Farm Service Agency committee that blew the whistle on a cotton field scam that sent four farmers to prison in 2001.
Mr. ALTHOF: When farmers like this take advantage of the situation and milk the system for their own benefit, it will hurt us in that if they are caught, the government does not like to be defrauded, and they've made the insurance program more strict.
BURNETT: The harm goes even deeper. It's one thing when a corporate CEO is indicted in Houston; it's another when four farmers are convicted in the little town of Roscoe, Texas, where Althof lives, farms, shops and goes to church.
Mr. ALTHOF: This has had a devastating effect on our community nucleus, and there were friends of those convicted farmers that won't speak to me. There have been a lot of sides taken.
BURNETT: But Daylon Althof would still turn his friends in if he had to do it all over again, because, he says, `We're here to farm the land. We're not here to farm the program.' John Burnett, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Find out more about how farmers have used tomato capers and bogus cotton crops to fool the government by going to our Web site at npr.org.
This is NPR News.
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