Local farmers create device to combat wire theft

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Faced with a copper wire theft epidemic on grain bin facilities, three Lonoke County farmers have uncovered, and are now marketing, a theft detection system they believe will yield dramatic results in the fight against wire theft.

Farmers Scott Mitchell, Matt Schafer and Jerry Kelly were each victims of copper theft on their grain bin facilities – Kelly several times. They tried to think of ways to thwart the thieves who had figured out how to beat camera monitoring systems and other theft deterrents. They also spoke to law enforcement to understand their rights and limitations in protecting their property.

Schafer went as far as staking out his farm at night.

“I’d have dinner, put the kids to bed and get out there about midnight,” Schaefer recalled. “I had the perfect spot at a crossroads on our farm, where I could see anyone coming or going in any direction.”

He says he had the sheriff department’s number programmed into his phone in one hand and a gun in his other hand for protection. Problem was, after a long day on the farm, Schaefer kept falling asleep.

“I’d wake up and say ‘where the heck am I?’ So I’m telling myself ‘this isn’t fun, it’s probably not very safe, either.’ Finally, I told myself ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’” he said. “But I knew there had to be something out there – some sort of technology – that could help us with this problem.”

In the darkness of one of those stakeout nights last May, Schafer reached for a piece of technology he had with him, an iPad, and typed into the search bar how to stop copper wire theft, agriculture. What popped up in the returns ultimately led him, Mitchell and Kelly to the technology they’ve now incorporated into a product they call BinSnitch.

An Indiana-based company named Net Irrigate had already created a wireless irrigation monitoring system that included the ability to notify owners when copper wiring was cut on center-pivot irrigation systems. Seeing an opportunity to transfer that technology to their problem with copper wire theft on grain bin systems, Schaefer and Mitchell began a series of conversations with the owners of Net Irrigate. After several months of discussion and a visit to Arkansas, Net Irrigate’s general manager, Edward DeSalle, came up with system tweaks that would allow deployment of his technology in a grain bin environment.

“If you cut a wire or in any way break a connection, the BinSnitch immediately sends notice,” said Mitchell, who was the first to have the system installed on his grain bins last July. “It sends notice out to 10 different numbers through a cell phone connection.”

Mitchell says it logs the GPS coordinates where the device is located and sends out an email, text or voicemail message. “You can program your home number, your cell number, the sheriff’s office, your neighbor, your farm help, whoever,” he said. “Any number you program into it.

“We think this can be a big help to law enforcement. We want the copper thieves to know there is a deterrent that wasn’t there before.”

Mitchell says the thought of those who engage in metal theft is an irritant to his sensibilities.

“You know, I’ve got to get up every day, I’ve got to put a crop in, I’ve got to get a crop out, and I’ve got a family I want to see. I do those things, because it’s the life I’ve chosen,” he said. “But it’s not right for a guy to take the wire out of my bins, take it to a scrap yard and get paid in cash and not pay taxes on it. This guy doesn’t have a real job, doesn’t have to pass a drug test, and the next thing he does is wait until I fix the wiring in my grain bins and then hits me again. I don’t like a copper thief.”

Kelly, who runs a law practice in Carlisle and continues to direct, along with his brother, the family’s farming operation, understands the difficulty in getting a conviction in metal theft cases.

“I’ve been a special prosecutor. I’ve been a judge, and I practice law,” Kelly said. “I know what it takes to bring about prosecution. And that’s not easy (with this type of theft), and there’s good reason for that.” 

He says just having a photo of someone at your grain bins doesn’t automatically mean a conviction. “You have to prove a person is guilty of a criminal act beyond a reasonable doubt. With the epidemic of metal theft we have, the police are getting a bad rap for not catching these people, but they’re just as frustrated as anyone,” Kelly said. “They’re tired of pulling up and seeing the plastic clippings from the wire casing that has been cut and having a mad landowner, because they haven’t caught somebody. They know they need something more.”

Kelly says they knew Farm Bureau had worked in the legislature last session to get more teeth in metal theft laws with only minimal success. “We were concerned that our law enforcement didn’t have the tools needed to really impact metal theft,” he said.

They believe the BinSnitch system can help both the farmer and law enforcement.

“We want to make this work. How many of these BinSnitch devices can we get out there to stop this metal theft?” Mitchell said. “We believe this is going to help. You can get cameras. But cameras are going to get pictures of people hauling off your stuff.

“First off, we want to help the farmer. I cannot stand to think there are people out there sitting up at night to guard their grain bins,” Mitchell said. “When that happens, the cost of repair is far more expensive than the wire that’s been stolen. It’s devastating.

“We’ve got enough sense to know there’s going to come a time when Farm Bureau says it can’t afford to insure your bins anymore or the cost of that insurance is going to get so high we can’t afford it,” Mitchell said. “We knew we had to do something that took the control out of the thieves’ hands.”

The BinSnitch system is available for $2,750 per unit. There are no monthly monitoring fees, and the system operates on a battery with a three- to five-year power supply. Mitchell says they’ve installed dozens of units across Arkansas, with the ability to go nationwide with the product. Those interested in finding out more about the BinSnitch should contact AgSecure at 105 Park Street, Suite B, Carlisle, AR 72024, or by calling (870) 552-5000.

Arkansas Farm Bureau paid claims in excess of $1 million for copper-theft losses on grain bins, irrigation equipment and farm buildings in 2013, with losses exceeding $2 million during the past three years. Nationally, Net Irrigate estimates wire theft accounted for more than $1 billion dollars in losses in 2013.

As a way to counter some of those losses, Arkansas Farm Bureau will waive an insured’s deductible up to $1,000 on claims where a copper theft loss occurs and BinSnitch was properly installed at the time of the loss.

“The peace of mind a system like this can bring to a farmer, you can’t put a dollar value on that,” Kelly said. “One thing I know, these copper thieves are sort of like lightning. You know they’re going to hit, but you don’t know when, and you don’t know where. 

“At least now, with BinSnitch, you’ve got a fighting chance with the thieves.”
  
Editor's Note: This column was originally published in the Winter issue of Arkansas Agriculture magazine.



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