Thieves hit Michigan farmers' apple, pumpkin crops
It's tough running an orchard in Michigan during the busy autumn season.
Especially when someone steals your apple or pumpkin crop.
"You think of an apple as just an apple, but it's literally a dollar hangin' there. Or a 50-cent piece," said Ryan Spicer, who runs a farm in Linden that supplies the fruit to Spicer Orchards Farm Market in Livingston County's Hartland Township.
Over the course of three days in early October, 180 bushels of apples at the Genesee County farm were harvested and stolen right off the trees.
About 75 miles to the east in St. Clair County and during the same time frame, more than 1,000 pumpkins were stolen from McCallum's Orchard and Cider Mill in Jeddo, said owner Ray Peltier.
He's already had to buy 230 pumpkins from another farm and canceled two pumpkin painting events that were supposed to be held this week.
Neither farmer said they had ever experienced a theft of this scale before.
"This farm and that farm (in Hartland Township) included, we take care of six families. It's not just my family, it's not just my dad's family, it's not just my grandpa," Spicer said. "We've had families with us for over 20 years, and with some of those families, this is their career. This is what they depend on."
Authorities are also surprised by the scale of the theft.
"This isn't a bunch of high school kids," Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell said. "Whoever did it was well organized and apparently had a market for (the apples)." Pickell's department estimates the Linden farm's loss at $14,400.
The Spicer's theft occurred some time between 5 p.m. Oct. 6 and 1 p.m. Oct. 9, where the thieves took out between 2 and 2 1/2 acres of product.
The Linden farm has 7 acres of apple trees. In the first couple weeks of September, Spicer said he was able to harvest 4 acres of Gala, Honeycrisp and Fuji apples. The remaining Jonagold, Fuji, Evercrisp and Northern Spy apples were stolen about a week before they were going to be harvested.
Spicer was hoping to open up his own market at the Linden farm, instead of just sending all of his produce to Spicer Orchards, but said the theft pushes his dream back at least one to two years. It also will mean fewer bags of apples and less apple cider to sell at the market in Hartland Township, bringing down profits for the seasonal business.
As for McCallum's, Peltier said there are only 500 of the gourds left, meaning the farm could run out of pumpkins as soon as this weekend. Last year, the orchard didn't run out of pumpkins until the first week of November. And this summer, they took extra precautions to water the pumpkin fields every night to get the crop through a two-month drought.
His wife, Laurie, estimated the pilfered pumpkins are worth $7,500.
"For me it's a huge loss, but then for our volunteers, it rips their heart out," Peltier said. "It's a memory that's lost. A pumpkin's a memory."
After McCallum's finished its Pumpkinfest on Oct. 6, Peltier said he stayed at the orchard, making apple cider from 7 p.m. on Oct. 6 until 2 a.m. on Oct. 7. A volunteer arrived at the orchard by 7 a.m. Oct. 7.
"Our front gate was open (when he arrived), which is not the norm," Peltier said.
Peltier said he believes that during the five-hour window when the orchard wasn't occupied, 250 already harvested small pumpkins and 150 large pumpkins were taken and many hundred more mature pumpkins were harvested and stolen from the farm's 2 1/2-acre pumpkin patch.
McCallum's also has a corn maze and petting farm as well as u-pick apples and grapes, and cider donuts. But the pumpkins are an important part of the seasonal lure: they are used for painting, decoration and pumpkin pies, Peltier said.
Since disclosing the theft, Peltier said he's received calls of support from former employees, had extra customers patronize the orchard and had a car club offer to bring volunteers to help with projects around the farm.
Peltier said whoever stole his pumpkins likely planned to sell them outside of Michigan.
"I think if somebody came to me with some apples — I'm sure all of the other orchards would do the same thing — like, they would be letting the authorities know unless you're another orchard," he said.
Peltier said he's going to have to increase security after the incidents.
"It's hard to take," Peltier said. "I guess it will affect our customers because we'll have to worry more about security. It ends up affecting the innocent person because of those who were dishonest."
In Genesee County, Pickell said the sheriff's department doesn't have any leads. He asked that anyone with information on the apple theft at the Linden farm call Detective Sgt. Kurt Harrington at (810) 257-3407.
Spicer also said he also plans to beef up security on his farm by installing game cameras around the property and erecting a fence along the back of his property.
"You're pretty brave to be coming in here in the middle of the night and strippin', you know, 1,200 trees," Spicer said. "If (farms) see something's wrong, they'll stay up to days on end, you know. We have done it before. 2012 ... we stayed up night and day burning fires around our orchard to try to keep the temperature up, so that way the blossoms didn't freeze."
Meanwhile, in September, an orchard in Indiana near the Michigan border reported 50,000 apples stolen from an acre of the farm.
In a Facebook post, Williams Orchard in LaPorte County, Indiana, called the theft was an "in-cider job" and said it was "making the best outta this rotten situation." The news even made it to late night, with "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon cracking a joke about it.