Hay — the Stuff Horses Eat — Is the Latest Weird Item Targeted by Thieves

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Never mind hunting for a needle in a haystack — what if you’re hunting for the actual haystack? Last summer’s drought across the nation’s agricultural belt has led to a spate of hay thefts as farmers face record prices for this crucial livestock feed. 

Industry publication Farm Progress reports that hay that should have been worth around $200 sold for record highs of around $320 a ton at auction. It’s just supply and demand, auction manager Dale Leslein told the magazine.

Oklahoma is screaming for hay… Missouri is running short; Nebraska is very tight as is Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky. They’re all running out of hay.

Some thieves will just sneak away with a couple of bales and hope the owner doesn’t notice them missing, authorities in Missouri say. Others are more brazen: The Denver Post says one group of criminals made off with $5,000 worth of hay in a front-end loader back in September.

The biggest problem for farmers is that it’s virtually impossible to recover stolen hay because it all pretty much looks alike. Even if you had a good hunch of who took it, there’s no way to prove that those bales sitting in someone else’s field really belong to you. The New York Times reports that some farmers have started painting their hay with brands or affixing ribbons to bales as means of identification.

Some people are making attempts to fight back.

One enterprising sheriff in Oklahoma resorted to using GPS tracking to nab hay thieves last spring. And last month, the Coalition to Support Iowa‘s Farmers published a PSA on its website with theft-thwarting tips. Among them:

“Evaluate what security measures they have in place… Store hay close to your farmstead where you can better monitor it. If your hay must stay in the field, put a gate across the field entrance and lock it.”

Of course, hay bales aren’t the only bizarre thing criminals take during economically stressful times. When fuel prices skyrocketed in the summer of 2008, fast-food restaurants filed police reports over theft of their frying oil — which was filtered and used as a substitute for diesel. Last year, as gas prices rose, the phenomenon began popping up again in upstate New York, Philadelphia and other parts of the Northeast.

(MORE: 5 Weird Things People Are Stealing While the Economy’s in Bad Shape)

At one point last year, thefts of Tide laundry detergent got so bad that storekeepers from Maryland to Oregon considered keeping it under lock and key, and authorities in the Washington, D.C. area actually organized a raid on a Tide-theft ring. (Insert your own “ring around the collar” joke here.) Police said the thieves — often drug dealers or users — preferred shoplifting detergent to other items because (like hay), there’s no way to tell if one has been stolen — no serial numbers, no unique identification markers.

Canada’s maple syrup trade was disrupted this fall by a brazen $30 million dollar theft of the sweet stuff in Quebec. The criminals made off with million of pounds of syrup, or more than a quarter of producers’ emergency supply.

(MORE: Why Does Canada Have a Maple-Syrup Cartel?)

What’s weirder: Stealing syrup or having a stockpile of it? Since Quebec produces more than three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup, the producers’ federation has kept a stash on hand for more than 10 years, as a hedge against the big price fluctuations that are caused by particularly good or bad harvest years.