September 24, 2018
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Roadside ‘harvesting’ is still stealing

Jim Young | Reuters
Jim Young | Reuters
Maine farmers have been plagued by people helping themselves to their crops on the side of the road.
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

It was bad enough when Debi Martin Smith discovered people were randomly helping themselves to ripening ears of corn planted near the roadside at her family’s Golden Harvest Farms.

But then someone had the gall to complain about its quality to her face.

Debi’s husband Carl Smith along with their son Shawn operate the family farm in Mapleton where they grow, among other things, Dent — so called “cow corn” because it is fit only for bovine consumption. It’s different from the sweet, bi-colored corn enjoyed by humans.

“I don’t know who these people are or how many have stolen corn,” Smith said. “But I have had some of them come up to me and say, ‘you know that corn tastes pretty bad.’ Well, you know what? You are not supposed to take it or eat it.”

The Smiths are growing 200 acres of the cow corn to sell to markets around New England for cattle feed.

“It’s not going to kill anyone who eats it,” Smith said. “But people are trespassing and going where they should not be going.”

The Smiths have been farming for about 40 years in Mapleton and Debi Smith said this is not the first time people have helped themselves to side dishes from their farm.

“I’ve seen people going into our fields and digging up our potatoes,” she said. “They think it’s easy pickings [and] it’s nothing to see a strip of crops dug up by someone not working for you.”

The Smiths now grow grains exclusively, but back when they did plant potatoes, Smith said the family would offer to dig up potatoes and anyone was welcome to come take them for free.

“No one came,” she said. “I guess they only wanted them if they could sneak in and steal them in the dark of night.”

What makes it more frustrating for Smiths, Debi Smith said, is they allow access on portions of their land to snowmobile clubs in the winter.

“We have posted parts of the farm in the past but the signs are usually stolen or thrown off in the woods,” she said. “And the thing is, just ask and if you want some corn stalks for decorating, when the time is right after the harvest I’ll give you some.”

Not far from the Smiths, the Bucks of Buck Farms in Mapleton are seeing their own share of crops damaged and stolen from random passers by.

The Bucks have 50 acres in sunflowers they are growing to sell for bird seed.

But the large flowers with their distinctive yellow heads are attracting a more human variety of foul play this year.

“People don’t seem to realize the flowers have a value,” Martha Buck said. “So they are helping themselves to flowers and trampling the fields taking photos without our permission — it’s like they think it’s all there free for the taking.”

On several occasions Buck said she saw evidence of damage done to her flowers thanks to photos the alleged trespassers posted on social media.

So Buck took to Facebook, asking people to be courteous and not damage the flowers.

“Unfortunately there has been quite a high number of plants picked and destroyed without permission,” she wrote on the post. “Permission has not been granted to anyone to remove anything from the fields.”

Like the Smiths, Buck said she is more than happy to have people admire the flowers and even come photograph them — just ask first.

It’s been a tough year on farmers in Maine losing crops to theft.

A rash of incidents at unstaffed “honor” farm stands at which customers are trusted to leave the correct amount of money for crops purchased has forced some farmers to abandon the practice, a farming tradition, altogether.

In Fort Kent this past weekend, someone stole the entire harvest from a family’s section in a community garden at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

And unfortunately, such crimes are hard to prosecute unless the thieves are caught red-handed in the act.

“We’ve never caught anyone in the act, so what’s the point of calling law enforcement?” Smith said. “Frankly, if you are a moose or a bear, eat all the corn you want, if you’re a person, stay out and leave it alone.”

Most people, Buck said, are honest, but it just takes a few to cause damage.

“It’s not like they are taking an acre or more of crops,” Buck said. “But we know it’s happening and there is no point in going to the police.”

The way John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, sees it, whether it’s one acre or one potato, stealing is stealing.

“Most farmers are hard-working, honest people who are at the mercy of the elements and fluctuating markets,” Bott said. “They produce the food we need to sustain ourselves and frequently operate on thin or non-existent profit margins [and] if you steal from farmers, you steal from all of us.”

Dealing with crop theft is nothing new, according to Smith.

“Farmers have always had to deal with trespassers and people who have no respect for the land,” she said. “I think some people forget that without farmers, their plates would be empty.”


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