Farmers get new weapon against copper thieves
By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent August 24, 2012 1:42PM
Farmer Hank Wunderink (left) talks with Lake County Sheriff's Chief Tim Downs (center) and Sheriff John Buncich (right) in a cornfield on Wunderink's 300 acre farm in Shelby, Ind. Friday August 24, 2012. A press conference was held in the field to announce anti-theft technology being used to combat copper theft from irrigation pivots (above). | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 26, 2012 6:05AM
SHELBY — Copper thieves targeting farm irrigation systems in Lake County may find their actions are directly tapped into the sheriff’s office.
Friday local farmers, members of the Lake County Farm Bureau, Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance and the Lake County Sheriff’s office gathered in farmer Frank Wunderink’s Shelby cornfield underneath the massive irrigation system to discuss technology installed at local farms designed to catch copper thieves in the act.
Todd Wottring, district sales manager for Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance, said the rising price of scrap metal has thieves trying to find copper anywhere they can, and one of those places is farm irrigation systems.
One pivot irrigation unit contains about $500 worth of copper wiring at today’s market prices.
“It may not seem like that much but (the theft) causes $10,000 in damages,” Wottring said.
Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance covers 341 farms in Lake County. In the past three to four years the company has paid out about $80,000 in claims relating to irrigation system thefts.
That is why the insurance company is teaming up with local farmers and the sheriff’s department to bring the Netirigate wireless agricultural irrigation monitoring system up and running on farms throughout the county.
“We have to find ways to beat the thieves,” Wottring said.
The system works by detecting the moment the copper wiring in a pivot irrigator is cut or tampered with and then sends alerts via text, email and telephone to the farmer and sheriff’s office.
For his part Wunderink stands behind the technology and its effectiveness. Wunderink said one of his farms was targeted by thieves two times in spring 2011. They made off with the wiring and left thousands in damages in their wake. Wunderink said he had enough and installed the Netirrigate system on his farms.
“Then last fall in November in the middle of the night I got a call,” Wunderink said.
He gathered up his flashlight, drove the six miles to the farm and caught two people stripping the copper wiring from his irrigation system red-handed.
“I held one of them at gunpoint, the other one got away,” Wunderink said. The sheriff’s department was able to apprehend the second thief a few weeks later. The men were prosecuted. Wunderink said he was able to make repairs to the damaged wiring instead of having to file yet another $10,000 insurance claim.
Sheriff John Buncich said the system will give his department another tool in its arsenal to aid farmers. He said the technology, along with a hand drawn map of the location of all of the irrigation systems in the county and how to get there, will enable officers to respond quicker and more effectively when a theft is under way.
“It’s a matter of working together,” Buncich said, adding it is also about prevention.
“Taking these types of preventative measures with modern technology will go a very, very long way,” Buncich said. The sheriff said it is important to prevent these types of crimes and help farmers keep their insurance premiums low so the added cost of this type of theft does not trickle down to the consumer in the grocery store.
Wottring said to help encourage local farmers to participate, Indiana Farm Bureau will pay for the first system installed if the farmer agrees to put the system on its remaining irrigators. The typical Lake County Farm using irrigation systems have between three and 10.
Mark Childress, account manager for Netirrigate, said the system costs about $1,000 per irrigation unit.