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Bandits Raid Fruit Growing at SW Michigan Orchard

by Stan Maddux

Published: Friday, July 31, 2020

Thousands of dollars in stolen fruit recently picked from a southwestern Michigan farm has growers concerned a rash of similar thefts last fall was just the beginning.

"This may be a one-time thing. Hopefully, that will be that, but it seems like there's a pattern emerging and farmers should be aware," said Ben Smith, executive secretary of the Michigan State Horticultural Society.

An estimated $6,000 in cherries, blueberries and strawberries were taken from the trees and bushes at Corey Lake Orchards near Three Rivers.

Beth Hubbard, owner and operator of the 250-acre fruit and vegetable farm, told Michigan Farm Bureau the mid-July theft happened during the night.

An early May freeze killed much of her cherry crop this year, but her heirloom yellow cherry trees were full of fruit.

She discovered the mid-July thefts after staff members she sent to harvest the yellow cherries returned empty handed.

"They came back and said, 'Well, there aren't any.' I said, 'No, you're missing the trees. Go back and look again.' That was pretty shocking," Hubbard said.

At least two other southwestern Michigan farms and one in northern Indiana were hit by fresh fruit bandits last October.

More than three acres of apple trees at Spicer Farms in Fenton were picked clean and 350 pumpkins were taken from McCallum's Orchard and Cider Mill in Jeddo.

About 20,000 pounds of apples were picked from the trees at Williams Orchard near LaPorte the previous month.

No suspects have been reported in any of the cases.

Smith and others in the fresh produce trade agree with authorities who suspect the thefts are the work of fast-working professionals with quick access to buyers of the stolen fruit.

"This isn't just somebody coming in to pick for their own consumption," said Audrey Sebolt, associate horticulturalist and industry relations specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau.

Smith said he has no idea where the fruit is taken but feels it might be offered at farmers markets or roadside stands in more populated areas like Chicago and Detroit.

He doubts if any grocery store is winding up with it because of the connections between retailers and reputable suppliers.

"With a retailer, you kind of got to have a relationship so that makes it tough to have a relationship based on theft," Smith said.

Smith said it's tough for growers to protect themselves against such thefts given the amount of acreage eyes alone can't watch over around the clock.

He said video cameras are an option, but the footage isn't always of high enough quality to identity suspects captured by the lens.

Smith said deer fencing around the crop might be more effective because it would impede the movement thieves rely on to quickly steal large volumes of product.

Deer fencing might be too costly, though, depending on the acreage and value of the crop.

Smith said another potential theft prevention tool is noise producing motion sensors to scare off intruders.

He said the best and more cost-effective option could be hiring a security guard to patrol the grounds during harvest season.

Smith also works at Hinkelman Farms, which has about 500 acres of grapes along with corn and soybeans near Watervliet.

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