Copper thieves have targeted irrigation systems on farms for several years, creating a serious problem for growers all over the country. They steal span cable from pivots and sell it for up to $4 per pound, effectively costing the growers thousand of dollars in replacement expenses.
Sadly, for some growers, it's beginning to cost them more then new replacement span cable for a machine. It's costing them their irrigation systems.
This was almost the case for a farm in Maxton, N.C.
Carmichael Farms had been robbed by copper thieves over 10 times in 2007 and 2008. Co-owner Eddie Carmichael says each time the span cable was stolen from a pivot system they would have to spend $1000 to replace each span of cable.
He was scared of how the money loss would affect Carmichael Farms-the farm owned and cared for by his family for nearly 50 years.
The copper thieves began aggressively targeting Carmichael Farms in March 2007; Carmichael says the situation looked grim. "I don't know how many times we'd been hit, but they were about to put us out of the irrigation business."
He remembers when the thieves would steal from them two nights in a row. "One night they'd steal the wire off of our systems. We'd put it back up and then the next night they'd steal it again."
Every time Carmichael Farms was hit by the copper thieves, they had to replace the span cable in their irrigation system. It wasn't long before they decided to take action.
They began by taking preventative measures: digging ditches, building security fences, even hiring security guards to watch over the property every night. Unfortunately, nothing was working like they had hoped.
"The security guards kept them away at night, but [the guards] were too expensive." Carmichael said. The thieves, though, were not willing to give up, "We had to do something."
Carmichael decided to have a Reinke OnTrac system installed on some of their irrigation equipment, with the anti-theft notification option included.
The system is made to monitor any interruptions in the irrigation system and notify the grower if something happens, including span cable theft, that needs immediate attention.
Jerry Smith, a Reinke dealer with Palmetto Irrigation in Denmark, S.C., sold Carmichael the OnTrac system. He said Carmichael is not his only customer who has been desperate to stop copper thieves.
"Copper theft has been a real problem and the OnTrac system is proving to be an effective deterrent," Smith said. He added that the OnTrac system gives him and his customers peace of mind.
The first time Carmichael's cell phone alerted him of a copper theft was in December of 2007. He said the alarm let him know exactly what the problem was.
Carmichaels called the local sheriff and immediately drove to the irrigation sight and found the thieves at the scene. The Carmichaels were able to stop the thieves from clipping the span cable, but unfortunately, didn't catch them.
Carmichael says they got there just in time to scare the thieves away. "We went down there and ran them off," he said.
But it wasn't the last time Eddie would find copper thieves on his field.
Nine months later, in mid-September 2008 at 11 p.m., Eddie's OnTrac system alerted him of a span cable theft on one of his pivots. He immediately jumped out of bed, got in his truck and headed to the irrigation system in jeopardy. On his way there he called the sheriff's office, notifying of the theft occurring on his property.
Once Carmichael approached the pivot he knew he had the thieves cornered.
"I saw the vehicle out there in the field, so I gave the dispatcher the license plate number," he said. Then, Carmichael says he got even closer. "I drove out to the pivot and they all scattered and went running off into the field."
All of the offenders ran away except for one-the man left behind began walking toward Carmichael's truck.
Carmichael shifted his truck into reverse and began yelling at the man. "I told him just to get down and not to move . and he did."
It took three minutes for the local sheriff to arrive. During that time Carmichael sat in his truck with the offender lying on the ground. After the sheriff arrived, the man was arrested, but the other offenders who had run away into the field were not found.
Carmichael went to his office to make a phone call before driving to the local police station to press charges. On his way to the station, he drove past his field and saw two individuals sitting on the side of the road-the two had been involved in the theft.
Carmichael says the thieves were more than willing to confess everything they had done that night.
"They didn't know where they were or how to get home and the mosquitoes were eating them alive. They didn't care if they went to jail, as long as they got out of that field. So, they admitted everything. We called the sheriff and he came down and picked them up."
The offenders then faced charges of felony larceny.