Farmers crack down on pecan thefts

A machine shakes pecans from a tree near Albany, Ga., in this Nov. 2, 2001 photo. Pecan prices have soared to record highs, driven by withering drought in the U.S. and surging demand in Asia.



SAVANNAH — Hired by farmers as a private security guard, Brooks Ruck­er patrols thousands of acres in southern Georgia on the lookout for thieves toting 5-gallon buckets.

He rarely comes up empty-handed. Since the fall harvest began Oct. 1, Ruck­er says, he and a pair of buddies have caught more than 160 culprits in the act. Some they let go. Others get handed over to police to face possible felony charges. Either way, he’s recovered thousands of dollars’ worth of pecans snatched from his employers’ trees.

“It’s an all-day hassle trying to keep these folks out,” Rucker said. “You’ll pull into a pecan grove and they’ll have a 10-foot extension ladder trying to shake the pecans loose with poles.”

At a time when farmers should be giving thanks for pecans selling at record prices, they’re instead cracking down on thieves.

Pecan prices have soared as China has developed an insatiable appetite for them, while withering drought in the southern U.S. has limited supplies.

In Georgia, the nation’s top pecan producer, farmers and authorities say criminals can earn a tidy profit by stealing the nuts – worth $1.50 or more per pound in smaller quantities. Pecan grower Bucky Geer estimates a single 5-gallon bucketful is worth about $38.

“Some of these pecans are approaching a nickel in value apiece,” Geer said. “It makes them too tempting to steal.”

Geer and six other farmers in southwest Georgia’s Mitchell County hired Rucker and his friends to watch their combined 7,500 acres of pecan groves during the fall harvest, which runs from October through December. The farmers pay the men, all of them volunteer firefighters, about $2,100 a week total.

Duke Lane, the chairman of the Geor­gia Pecan Growers Association, said the precautions are worth it. Georgia is expected to harvest about 90 million pounds this year, about a third of the U.S. total. Wholesale prices to food producers were above $3 per pound early in the harvest season, compared with about $2.35 a pound last year.

“We’re losing a lot of money,” said Lane, who notes that pecan thieves have been a problem before but seem more aggressive than ever this year. “You could easily steal $1,000 worth of nuts in one night.”

Roadside stands are buying stolen pecans to sell to passing motorists, Lane said. Owners of rural businesses from gas stations to hardware stores act as middlemen, buying smaller amounts until they accumulate enough to sell to food processors.

Mitchell County Sheriff W.E. Boze­man said his deputies apprehended three men trying to snatch several hundred pounds of pecans from a storage trailer. The sheriff figures his department gets calls at least five days a week reporting pecan snatchers.

Under Georgia law, it’s a felony to steal more than $500 worth of a crop from a farmer’s land. Joe Mulholland, the district attorney for the five-county judicial circuit that includes Mitchell County, expects he’ll prosecute dozens of pecan theft cases after the harvest.