CHARLESTON -- Last week, Jim Burke went to start the irrigation in one his Charleston corn fields. It still isn't running.
"We had gone out to start the irrigation and it wouldn't start," Burke said. "We noticed the wiring was gone."
Burke's dilemma has become all too common over the past year, as copper thieves have been scouring fields and other places for copper to sell at salvage yards.
"We've had several thousand dollars of copper stolen of the pivot systems here," said Charlie Marcum, Mississippi County chief deputy. The problems started around the first of the year, he said, and there have been several arrests.
The thefts come at the tail of skyrocketing prices for copper, said Stoddard County Sheriff Carl Hefner. Copper payments, which were about $1 a pound, are now "going anywhere from $2.50 to $3 a pound," he said.
His department has made about 10 arrests, including three who were caught in a multi-county theft ring in April.
Burke isn't sure when the wire was stolen, but it happened in the week the irrigation system wasn't in use. Repairs will cost about $4,200, which is covered by insurance. But, the lack of irrigation may hurt his crop.
"After another week (without rain or irrigation) it will start reducing the yield," he said.
Thefts this time of year are unusual, said Sgt. Detective Greg Ourth of the Scott County Sheriff's Department, who also serves on a task force concerning the thefts for southeast Missouri.
Wintertime, when irrigation systems often sit unattended is when most thefts occur. Stealing the copper in the spring and summer when irrigation systems are in use can be dangerous because they are often on and can electrocute people. "If they're not familiar with what they're doing, they can certainly get hurt or even killed," Hefner said.
It's not just farmers who are victimized. Businesses with scrap metal are targets, Marcum said. In New Madrid County, thieves are breaking into vacant homes and "just literally stripping the wire out of the walls," Ourth said.
It's difficult to catch copper thieves. But there are some preventative measures. The three counties all said they have increased patrol of rural routes, and farmers are encouraged to check their equipment and machinery weekly, or even use "buddy systems" and check on one another's farms.
Surveillance cameras are another option, although they can be expensive. In Mississippi County, a sting operation caught several in the act, Marcum said.
Copper theft can be a lot of work. After the theft, there is another step one must take before redeeming it for cash -- removing the coating. "They build a fire and burn that insulation off," Hefner said.
The fires are one of the best ways to catch copper thieves, Ourth added. "It's almost like a severe rainbow-flamed color," he said. "It's strange, but it will be the prettiest fire you've ever seen in your life."
In fact, Marcum said several burn sites were found on the Mississippi and New Madrid County border. "They loaded up 16-foot trailers and took it to Kennett," he said.
Hefner called the thefts discouraging. "In this part of the country, the farmers are the backbone," he said.
Time, and the price of copper, will only tell whether the thefts surge again in the winter. "It could very well be a problem again if the price of raw metals stays high," Ourth said. "If they can make $1,000 to $2,000 a night selling the stuff, we'll have the same problem this winter."
* Copper payments, which were about $1 a pound, are now "going anywhere from $2.50 to $3 a pound."
* Wintertime, when irrigation systems often sit unattended, is when most thefts occur.
* Stealing the copper in the spring and summer when irrigation systems are in use can be dangerous because they are often on and can electrocute people.
* It's not just farmers who are victimized. Businesses with scrap metal are targets.