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.