Who would steal from Hazel Hester?

Missouri farmer Hazel Hester is a rural crim victim.(Photo by Jessica Naudziunas)

Imagine this: You just dropped about $800 on your John Deere 9510 combine. This piece of farm equipment eats up tons of cash to fill its 200-gallon diesel fuel tank, but boy does it pay off during harvest when it threshes rows and rows of crop in minutes.

But then: A few months later, you go to start it up, and you realize...nothing is happening. You check everything, and the last place you look is the fuel tank. The fuel’s all gone, and you’re wondering, how could this be?

Well, if you ask a rural thief, he or she will tell you, (though it may take some convincing) he’d been scoping your property for the last six months, and you had no idea. He saw you come home with that expensive fuel and decided he didn’t want to pay $3.75 a gallon to run his own truck. He’d just steal yours. So, one night, while you were out, the thief siphoned the whole lot of it.

This is exactly what happened to Hazel Hester.

I met this spunky female farmer in one of Missouri’s western-most towns. She was sitting across the table from me at the Missouri Division of Drug and Crime Control’s 1st annual Rural Crime Summit in St. Joseph, Mo. It was a half-day of rural crime awareness presentations, and if you were lucky drawings for John Deere flat caps. Keep your tools behind lock and key, police officers said. Brand your cattle, they added. When officers asked how many in the crowd did that about three people out of almost 150 raised their hands.

Hester has been riding her tractor solo for the last 10 years. After her husband Harold died of his second stroke, she took over the whole 600+ acre corn and soybean operation in Missouri’s Nodaway County. “Harold taught me everything I know, how to farm, grain, how to fix equipment, everything but one thing,” Hester says as she puts the heel of her hand under her chin, waiting for me to ask, “What’s that, Hazel?” Marketing, she says with a satisfied grin. “I learned that by the seat of my pants.”

Hester won’t reveal how much profit her operation brings in, but her best friend who sits beside her says it’s a lot, and she’s at this rural crime summit because she knows she has that to lose. This is the face of those victimized by rural crime - women in their 70s who can do it all, or beginning farmers who’ve taken out a loan to buy that expensive equipment. Though, what they look like or how hard they’ve worked doesn’t matter to a thief, it’s all in how well their barns are stocked and if the fuel tank has a lock.

Rural crime costs farmers millions of dollars in replacement and repair costs a year. It’s a big problem in farm-equipment rich Missouri. Over the last two years, Missouri police recovered more than $2.5 million in stolen farm goods, investigated over 815 rural crime cases and made 162 arrests. Unlike their city friends, farmers tend to trust their neighbors and don’t expect gallons of fuel to go missing or entire tractors to disappear without a trace. Until they’re hit as a victim, and then they learn how to watch their backs.

Like Hazel Hester.