SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Hired by farmers as a private security guard, Brooks Rucker patrols thousands of acres of Georgia farmland 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 two other guards have caught more than 160 culprits in the act. Some they let go. Others get handed over to police. Either way, he's recovered thousands of dollars' worth of stolen goods: mounds of pecans snatched from his employers' trees.
"It's an all-day hassle trying to keep these folks out," said Rucker. "You'll pull into a pecan grove and they'll have a 10-foot extension ladder trying to shake the pecans loose with poles. It's bad."
At a time when farmers should be giving thanks for pecans selling at record prices, they're instead cracking down on thieves. One sheriff in pecan-growing country says his department gets several calls a week reporting pecan snatchers, while the prosecutor in the area anticipates prosecuting dozens of pecan-theft cases.
It's not just pecan pies and other nutty goodies driving demand so close to the holidays. Prices have soared as China has developed an insatiable appetite for pecans, 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," said Geer, whose neighbor set up surveillance cameras after a theft. "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 through December. The farmers pay the men, all of them volunteer firefighters, about $2,100 a week total.
Under Georgia law, it's a felony to steal more than $500 worth of a crop from a farmer's land. Joe Mulholland, district attorney for the five-county judicial circuit that includes Mitchell County, anticipates that he'll prosecute dozens of pecan theft cases after the harvest.
"A significant number of them will be felonies," he said.
Duke Lane, chairman of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association, said the precautions are worth it. Pecan groves can cover hundreds, even thousands, of rural acres where there often aren't people around to spot thieves. And stolen nuts are easy to offload.
Roadside stands are buying them 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.
"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."