By Aimee Picchi
There's a crime wave going on in the U.S., but it's not in hard-bitten urban neighborhoods.
Rural communities and farms are increasingly being hit by criminals, lured by fields filled with animals and equipment but that might not be protected by anything more than fencing.
And, on top of that, sometimes the fencing is also ripped off.
Some of the miscreants are turning to farms to feed their drug habits, leading to a meth-fueled return of cattle rustling. Take the case of Oklahoma rancher Jet McCoy, who had 99 head of cattle stolen from his ranch. The two suspects admitted to being meth users. McCoy, who is known for his appearance on CBS' "The Amazing Race," didn't immediately notice the missing cattle because the thieves took the animals gradually.
"It's a strange evolution in crime," Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, said in an interview. Rural communities are seeing "a rash of these thefts, whether farm equipment or things stolen from rural properties -- fencing, irrigation wire -- that's been a huge problem and it doesn't seem to be slowing down."
It's difficult to track how many farm vehicles are stolen, Scafidi notes. While cars have VINs, tractors and other farm equipment use another identification system -- a product identification number -- which isn't widely known and sometimes isn't noted by law enforcement. Without an accurate description of a tractor, for instance, the vehicle might not be recovered, he said.
The rise in farm thefts is prompting action in some communities. In the Central Valley of California, a watch group called Hilmar Farm Watch was created in 2011 after farmers suffered from thefts of everything from copper wire to trailers, reports The Wall Street Journal. Farm-watch groups have started in other states, too, including Utah and Ohio.
Last year, thieves stole metal from agricultural properties valued at $1.1 million, or about four times what was stolen in 2009, The Journal notes, citing the Fresno County Sheriff's Office.
Criminals are hitting up farms and ranches across the country. Sometimes the reason is hard economic times, but sometimes the thieves are looking for money to feed a drug habit.
Texas and Oklahoma have seen a spike in cattle rustling, with more than 10,000 cows and horses reported missing in 2012, according to NPR's State Impact. That was a 40 percent jump from just one year earlier. Cattle rustling is a serious crime, given it carries a sentence of as much as 10 years.
In Vermont, which is battling what Gov. Peter Shumlin has called "a full-blown heroin crisis," thieves in recent years have targeted rural sugar-shacks, where maple-syrup is boiled down during the spring months. In 2012, one sugar maker suffered the theft of 160 gallons of syrup. In another case, a syrup maker returned to his sugar house to find some of his equipment ripped off.
When parts and equipment are stripped down, it indicates the thief was in desperate need of cash, Scafidi noted. "Their motivation runs a pretty wide range," he said. But farm equipment stripped of metal "goes hand in hand with drug problems."