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High-priced pecans attract thieves along Texas border

As the price peaks and harvest season begins, pecan growers brace for thieves who sneak into orchards to steal the popular nuts.

FABENS, Texas A growing appetite for pecans in China and drought in some parts of the U.S. has pushed up the price of the popular nut this holiday season.

Pecans are so pricey that farmers are coping with thieves who are stealing nuts by the truckload.

It s very sad you that spend40 years building a crop and they just come in and steal it, said Rusty Miller, a pecan-grower and third-generation farmer in ElPaso County.

Miller and other growers are keeping a watchful eye on their orchards as they prepare for the harvest, which begins in December and stretches through January.

Prices are at a record high about nickel a nut depending on the size which makes it tempting for thieves who sneak into orchards to fill bags and buckets with pecans.

Iwent in the house, ate supper, went back to the fields within 45 minutes they had stolen 450 pounds of pecans, Miller said.

He s taken to sitting in his truck at dusk at the entrance to his farm, watching for vehicles that drop off crews of thieves sent into the fields to pick the nuts.

Miller is not alone in worrying about his crop, said fellow pecan-grower, Kevin Ivy.

Every single farmer in this valley is suffering, waking up in the middle of the night in your underwear because the dogs are barking and running out there with spotlights, he said.

The sleepless nights are mounting along with the losses. You re looking in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a year, Miller said.

Unscrupulous buyers are pocketing the profits.A sting operation targeted one roadside stand in Fabens, Texas.Law enforcement agents working undercover posed as sellers on multiple dates.

On the video captured by hidden camera, the seller is heard saying: It s getting harder and harder to steal these. Can we do a big load?

The buyer responds: Yeah.

On another day, the seller offers a big truck filled with stolen pecans. The buyer agrees.He s only offering to pay $1.25 a pound; growers earn $3 a pound.

Some more of these cases need to be taken to the court and they need to be tried, said Ivy, whose father and grandfather were both pecan farmers.

The El Paso County Sheriff s Office has presented one pecan theft case to the district attorney for prosecution. One man was indicted by a grand jury; another was no-billed.

Farmers say the sheriff s office told them to post no trespassing signs that promise prosecution for thieves, but Miller said the signs have done little to stop the pilferers.

Every place I caught them, they were parked by a sign so now we have a fence, he said.

Most farmers have put up fences to protect their orchards, but they say it does not stop the thefts; it just slows down those who think money grows on pecan trees.

They ll cut the wire on the fence, some of them. Miller said.

E-mail akocherga@belo.com