Farmers Get Smart About Security

07:02AM Oct 25, 2014
( Chris Bennett )

Wire and metal thieves are relentless, but so are these protection and traceability measures 

Grain bins glowing in his headlights, Matt Schafer turned off his truck, checked his .40-caliber pistol and 
began another midnight vigil on his Lonoke, Ark., farm. He was playing a futile numbers game, hoping to catch copper wire thieves lurking around his bins. Schafer knew he was losing. Worn from the cat-and-mouse grind, he fell asleep clutching the gun—another night of empty returns.

Schafer’s grain bins had been stripped of wire, and he was desperate. A $3,500 camera system, high-resolution video with a hard drive and sentry duty had all failed. 

“I woke up at 3 a.m. and was sick of it,” Schafer remembers. “I felt like an idiot, hiding in my truck with a pistol and waiting on thieves that don’t sleep and don’t stop.”

Grabbing an iPad in the cab and searching for wire theft solutions, he came across Indiana-based Net Irrigate, a company with a pivot-monitoring device. Schafer contacted Net Irrigate and asked if they could apply the technology to grain bins. “I kept bull-dogging them, and they came down and took a look at our bins—probably just so I’d leave them alone.”

In the aftermath of repeated theft, Net Irrigate—in conjunction with Schafer and two other Lonoke farmers, Scott Mitchell and Jerry Kelly—developed BinSnitch wire protection for grain bins. (Prior to BinSnitch, Mitchell and Schafer’s bins systems were hit once each, and Kelly’s bins were hit four times—$150,000 in damage.) 

BinSnitch wires into a grain bin’s electrical system in less than an hour. When a wire is cut, a panel box opened or the device disturbed, BinSnitch contacts as many people as are programmed to receive warnings. Automated phone calls, texts and alerts shoot out with precise GPS coordinates of bin locations. The alerts are sent out instantaneously, allowing farmers and law enforcement time to catch criminals in the act.

“If someone opens my panel box or cuts a single wire, BinSnitch contacts me immediately because it’s part of the electrical loop. BinSnitch calls me, my wife, my employees, my son and the sheriff. We can catch them in the act—and that’s how to get a conviction,” Mitchell says.

BinSnitch runs off a lithium battery. If a grain bin power system is turned off, BinSnitch remains functional and the battery lasts up to eight years. The battery will send out messages and alerts when it gets low. 

“For a farmer, it’s hard to describe the frustration when you work all day and go home feeling good, only to come out the next morning and find damage from thieves,” Mitchell says. “It’s hard for me to tolerate working all day while some guy on drugs comes on my farm, steals my wire and puts my operation at risk. He gets paid in cash at a scrap yard, goes home and then I deal with the aftermath.”

The agriculture industry is recognized as a soft target, but copper wire theft isn’t merely about repair costs for farmers. Time lost is also a heavy factor, and the risk of losing a crop looms largest of all. A bin hit when grain is drying can hammer an operation; lost wire is genuine trouble, but a lost crop can lead to ruin. In addition to wire protection, BinSnitch also prevents grain theft or tampering.

“For BinSnitch, I hope a grower puts it on and never has to use it,” Mitchell says. “He’ll sleep better at night knowing his harvested crop is protected. At a given time, a bin system will contain over $1 million in grain. If a farmer had $1 million in cash money stored in his bins, he’d race out of bed each morning to check it. However, with grain, a farmer might say, ‘My grain is just fine in my bin.’ Farmers can’t afford to get that comfortable.”

The efforts of Schafer, Mitchell and Kelly to protect grain bins turned into AgSecure, a distributor partnership that markets BinSnitch. 

To prevent wire theft from agriculture wells, AgSecure has also developed PumpSnitch. PumpSnitch allows a farmer to operate wells via a smartphone from any location or control a well with a timer. Mitchell says PumpSnitch saves water, which helps farmers cut costs and boosts conservation efforts.

“If 10 wells are pumping at 1,000 gal. per minute that makes 10,000 gal. per minute. If PumpSnitch saves one hour of pumping per day, that’s 600,000 gal. in savings.” 

In the same manner as BinSnitch, PumpSnitch protects by wiring into the electrical loop and sending out alerts after any disruption. 

In light of the surge in rural crime, dogs are being trained to sniff out stolen metal and wire. Mick Swindells, a retired policeman from England, teaches dogs to detect forensic markers on metal. Forensic markers, detectable with an ultraviolet (UV) lamp, are already used on metals but require a line-of-sight, often impossible in a scrap yard. Swindells, with 30 years of sniffer-dog experience, trains Labradors to recognize forensic marker scents.

Deploying a boots-on-the-ground approach, Search Dogs UK trains dogs to freeze and point when they detect forensic marker scents on metal. 

“Anyone wanting to use the technology can buy the forensic marker, which is inexpensive at $50 to $100 (available in aerosol, black grease or clear grease), and apply it to their wire or metal. When a person buys the marker, it’s is registered specifically to them for life with no licensing fee,” Swindells says. “Let’s say your wiring is stolen and gets sold to a scrap yard. The forensic marker has a UV element and will glow under a UV lamp. But that’s a big problem in a massive scrap yard when searching with a UV light.”

Swindells’ dogs don’t need a line of sight to find the metal, and one dog can search an entire scrap yard in less than an hour. Otherwise, that same area might take 25 men all day to search with conventional detection methods. 

The dogs don’t track a particular scent but key in on a generic forensic marker combination. When a dog detects a forensic marker, it goes into a freeze indication and points. Once a dog locates, Swindells uses a DNA process to read the forensic marker and knows within minutes who is registered as the metal owner.

“We trained these dogs in the same manner we use to train narcotic dogs. This method of working a dog is 
my invention. It came about after a discussion I had with a CSI from a UK police force, and I realized what they needed was a forensic marker dog,” Swindells explains. He trains dogs between 12 and 24 months old, and it takes six weeks to completely teach each dog.

Forensic dogs can’t prevent the initial theft, but there’s potential to trace the origin and disrupt the chain of 
illegal sales, handling and delivery of stolen metal. 

“If stolen metal and wire are turned over, around a corner or even out of sight, it doesn’t matter because the dogs find stolen metal very fast—and all it takes is a small forensic marker the size of a dime.”