FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2001 file photo, a machine shakes pecans from a tree near Albany, Ga. Pecan prices have soared to record highs, driven by withering drought in the U.S. and surging demand in Asia. Farmers and sheriffs in Georgia, the nation's top pecan producer, say criminals have learned swiping unharvested nuts, worth $1.50 or more per pound, can be as profitable as scooping up piles of loose change. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor, File)
SAVANNAH, Ga. — Hired by farmers as a private security guard, Brooks Rucker patrols thousands of acres of farmland in southern Georgia 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 a pair of buddies have caught more than 160 culprits in the act. Some they let go. Others get handed over to police to face possible felony charges. 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 handling dozens of pecan-theft cases in court.
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," Geer said. "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 from October through December. The farmers pay the men, all of them volunteer firefighters, about $2,100 a week total.
Duke Lane, chairman of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association, said the precautions are worth it. Georgia is expected to harvest about 90 million pounds this year, about a third of the U.S. total. Wholesale prices to food producers were above $3 per pound early in the harvest season, compared to about $2.35 a pound last year.
"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."
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.
Mitchell County Sheriff W.E. Bozeman said his deputies apprehended three men trying to snatch several hundred pounds of pecans from a storage trailer. The sheriff figures his department gets calls at least five days a week reporting pecan snatchers.
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.
Pecan growers statewide plan to stay alert through December. Geer said a neighbor whose barn got burglarized set up game cameras used by deer hunters to watch his pecan stash at night.
In rural Evans County, 150 miles to the northeast, Mike Dollar recently drove past a neighbor's pecan trees and saw a carload of people filling buckets. The next day, his neighbor posted "Private Property" signs on every trunk.
"Everybody's been more vigilant," said Dollar, a University of Georgia extension agent working with farmers in the county. "At the end of the day, if they've harvested 5,000 pounds of pecans, they make sure they're under lock and key."