ROSS COURTNEY

Yakima Herald-Republic via Associated Press

WAPATO, Wash. (AP) -- There's no good time to find out you've been robbed. But Dave Carlson's timing couldn't have been much worse.

The Wapato orchardist learned late at night recently that he was missing four batteries to his wind machines just as he tried to crank them up to protect the fragile buds from frost.

"We were lucky we didn't lose anything that night," said Carlson, 65.

Frost can kill orchard buds in 30 minutes.

Carlson and his mechanics keep extra batteries in a shop, and they scrambled to replace the parts and get the blades turning quickly. They avoided damage to about $150,000 worth of cherries and apples.

He's not alone, and his problem is nothing new. Thousands of sprinkler heads vanish every year. Entire wind machine motors disappear. Workers find trailers loaded with ladders gone when they head out for pruning.

Carlson said he heard thieves even made off with two forklifts and a Porta Potti from one orchard last year.

Agricultural equipment theft is a persistent problem in the dark and remote orchards of the Yakima Valley.

"It's a cost of doing business down there," said Guy Hoon, orchard manager for Jack Frost-Marley Orchards in Wapato.

And it frustrates farmers to no end.

A few areas have formed rural block watches to patrol their own canal banks and dirt roads; the Yakima County sheriff's office has loaned a few of them patrol cars to help.

Those efforts don't stop crime completely but they have led deputies to recover stolen property and make arrests, said Mark McAllister, a leader of a Parker Heights neighborhood group.

"It's a chance for people to know their neighbors," he said.

On their own, law enforcement officials say there's little they can do to stop agricultural theft. Crimes happen in the dead of night, deep within rows of trees that obscure the view of nearby residents.

"It's a difficult crime ... to catch anybody at," said Stew Graham, chief of detectives for the Yakima County Sheriff's office.

Making things worse: Orchardists might go months before even noticing that one of their tools is missing.

"It's not like it's parked right up against the house," Graham said.

Since January 2009, the sheriff's office has received five reports of stolen wind machine motors. There have been at least eight forklift theft reports since 1989.

Graham did not know if the problem has escalated in recent years. Not all incidents are reported, he said.

In neighboring Benton County, officials are familiar with the theft of sprinkler heads and other items that can be sold for scrap metal, but they hadn't heard much about equipment being stolen.

"We haven't seen anything like that," Benton County Sheriff's Bureau of Law Enforcement Captain Steve Keane said.

Wind machine engine theft is one of the bigger problems lately.

Scott Howard, vice president for Cascade Wind Machine, knows of at least seven stolen engines over the winter. Most are from Wapato, two are from Toppenish and one is from Zillah.

"It's getting pretty ugly," he said.

The motors are 454 cubic-inch Chevrolet engines modified to run on propane. Within 15 minutes, however, they can be reconfigured back to gasoline, ready for a car or truck, Howard said.

They usually are mounted on the ground, connected to a transmission shaft that turns the blades high up in the air.

The Valley sees a few engine thefts every year, some years worse than others. This is one of the bad years, Howard said, especially because the engines have not been found for sale on Craigslist or in classified ads.

"Usually by now they've floated to the top," Howard said.

Howard called the suspected thieves "unsophisticated" because of the sloppy way they tear out the engines. However, the thieves must scout their sites pretty well. The machines are heavy enough to require a pickup with a hoist to carry them away.

Federal regulations that went into effect last summer no longer allow modified car engines in wind machines. When Howard's company replaces stolen engines, they must be V10s, which cost about $14,000, including installation.

So far, Howard said, insurance adjusters have been covering the extra cost.

Metal is another large segment of agricultural theft, though it affects more than just farms, of course.

Thieves have broken into electrical boxes along state highways. Utility companies have lost spools of wire. Brass flower vases have even been stolen off cemetery graves.

Metal theft shows up at farms in the form of stolen sprinkler heads. It's hard to say how bad that is this year, said Roger Wilson, owner of Wilson Orchard and Vineyard Supply.

"Most people really haven't discovered it yet. They're just getting their water turned on," he said.

Many farmers replace the heads with plastic models.

Most metal thieves try to take stolen metal to recycling centers for quick cash.

And metal prices are climbing again, as the construction industry begins to crawl out of the recession, said Bruce Savage, vice president of communications for the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. in Washington, D.C.

Copper, which includes the brass in sprinkler heads, is now worth about $3.30 per pound. That's lower than the record $4 per pound in summer 2008 but more than the $1.30 in the fall that same year.

Still, Savage believes metal theft is down across the nation because of better communication between recyclers and law enforcement, and stricter laws.

Over the past decade, the organization has developed an automatic e-mail alert system on its Web site, www.isri.org, that notifies recyclers and police departments within a 100-mile radius if somebody brings in a suspicious haul, or if thefts have been reported. That system showed an average 10 to 12 alerts per day in 2008 but only two or three lately.

Also, many states have adopted stricter regulations. Washington is among them. In 2007, state lawmakers passed laws that require recyclers to keep detailed records, pay with checks for transactions over $30 and hold payment for 10 days.

In 2008, a Wapato metal recycling business owner was found guilty of fencing stolen metal and sentenced to 90 days of home detention. In 2007, a Grandview recycling shop was charged with fencing stolen copper wire and reached an agreement with prosecutors dismissing the case in October 2009.

Hoon and Carlson, who oversee orchards along Lateral B Road in Wapato, both had entire engines to their wind machines stolen in December.

However, they agree theft is an old problem in their neighborhood.

In fact, about 15 years ago, they both participated in a local group of growers that hired off-duty sheriff's deputies for $25 per hour to patrol their orchards.

It worked, Carlson said.

"We absolutely put a stop to (theft)," Carlson said.

Authorities at the time told them the effort led to 67 arrests in their area.

Disagreements over payments and contracts brought the experiment to a halt within a year, Carlson said, while private companies proved less successful.

Today, farmers try to patrol their own back roads and land. Some have teamed up for neighborhood watches, similar to those found in cities.

Parker Heights orchardist Mark McAllister operates a block watch for rural county residents north of Interstate 82 to combat agricultural theft, as well as other crime. The pear, peach, apple and cherry grower has about 400 people from Union Gap to Zillah participating in varying degrees.

The members of the group, called the Parker Heights Property Owners Association, patrol the canal banks and dirt roads, while others simply receive his e-mail alerts about suspicious activity in the area. He has been known to lead graffiti paint-outs and road cleanup.

They've been at it since the mid-1990s, but in October 2008, the Yakima County sheriff's office loaned them a marked patrol vehicle. Donations from the block watch members pay for gas, and this year, four studded snow tires.

McAllister tells many stories about how his block watch members, communicating by cell phone, report strange vehicles driving through orchards late at night, lead deputies to stolen property and arrests, and occasionally block roads to prevent suspected thieves from escaping until deputies arrive.

"You can't outrun a cell phone," he said.

Also lately, farmers in the area have been extra sure to remove keys from equipment and lock the covers of wind machine engines.

Neighborhoods in Naches, West Valley and Gleed have started similar programs, some with their own cars. A group in the Buena and Zillah area may split off to form their own block watch, he said.

"We can make a difference as community members," he said.

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Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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