By CLAY CAREY

The Tennessean via Associated Press

FAYETTEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- There wasn't much left at the scene of the fire along Coldwater Creek Road by the time Max Thomas and Mike Whaley got there.

Four days earlier, flames charred a 50-foot strip on a rural Lincoln County farm. A local forestry agent thought the fire seemed suspicious, so he called Thomas and Whaley officers with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture's Criminal Investigation Unit. It's their job to catch criminals who target farms and state forests.

The agriculture crime division with nine investigators statewide is funded through 2012, but if the state's finances don't improve, the unit might be disbanded. State Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens hopes that doesn't happen.

"If (state agriculture crime investigators) were not around, you're not going to see nearly as many agricultural crimes investigated," Givens said.

For local police agencies spread thin by budget cuts of their own, farm crimes often aren't a high priority, Givens said.

Tennessee farms generate more than $2.5 billion in cash receipts annually. Timber sales account for another $381 million annually. But the state doesn't track how much agriculture crime costs the state. Individually, cattle theft can cost a farmer tens of thousands of dollars, and a large wildfire can cause $1 million in damage on a single farm.

Arson calls consume the bulk of the state's investigative time.

Cases are prioritized based on financial damage and likelihood that they can be solved. As a result of the cuts, the crime unit has taken on fewer cases. It looked into 440 crimes in 2009 half as many as it did in 2007.

"You can look at these (fires) for hours trying to figure it out," said Whaley, a former forest ranger. "It's like a big puzzle."

Whaley was recognized in June by The Tennessee Advisory Committee on Arson as the state's arson investigator of the year for work that centered on "clinkers" hard, rock-like residue left behind after hay burns at high temperatures.

Conventional wisdom and arson investigation manuals dictated that the residue only formed when the moisture in wet hay caused chemical reactions that lead to spontaneous combustion. Investigation manuals said those types of fires were accidental, likely caused by farmers who put wet hay in barns, and not the result of arson.

But during an investigation, Whaley discovered the theory was flawed. He studied hay fires for two years, and as a result of his work the committee that writes international arson investigation manuals may change its guidelines. The change could be significant to farmers trying to file insurance claims, making it easier for them to prove they were victims of arson.

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Unit's work changes

Between 2002 and 2007, federal statistics show, 152,656 acres of Tennessee farmland became something else.

As Tennessee's agricultural landscape has changed, so has the agriculture crime unit. The division once had an entire team dedicated to enforcing livestock laws its officers still do that, but they also break up meth labs in state parks and work on anti-terror projects.

Authorities are concerned that farm fertilizers and chemicals could be used as ingredients by drug makers or turned into weapons by terrorists.

Thomas, the head of the criminal investigation division, has been with the department of agriculture for 26 years. He was once the head of a unit that enforced livestock laws, making sure cattle and other farm animals were properly transported and vaccinated and looking into livestock thefts. That unit was disbanded several years ago, its members folded into a bigger group of general practice investigators.

John Teague, head of the agricultural extension office in Bedford County, needed Thomas' expertise when rustlers hit his farm.

Thieves took four cows, three calves, a livestock trailer and tools from Teague. The animals weren't ordinary cattle; they were registered breeding cows worth thousands of dollars each. Teague and his children had raised them, shown them and become emotionally attached.

"I spent as much time with them in my off hours as I did my family members," Teague said. Whaley and Thomas ultimately were able to catch one of the thieves and recover two of Teague's cows. A judge granted Teague more than $31,000 in restitution for the animals and equipment he didn't get back.

"They understood my predicament," he said of Whaley and Thomas. "They have a special connection to farmers."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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