The Great Virginia Grape Heist

And other tales of agricultural banditry

James Graham

Tuesday, September 11, 2018, was supposed to be harvest day for David Dunkenberger, a co-owner of Firefly Hill Vineyards, in Elliston, Virginia. He got to the fields early, eager to get this year’s grapes picked before the backwash of Hurricane Florence rolled in. As he scanned the vines, though, he began to feel queasy. His entire crop, about 2.5 tons of grapes, had vanished.

In the days that followed, Dunkenberger grieved the loss of his 2018 vintage and considered the ramifications. Factoring in sunk labor costs and lost sales, he figured he was out $50,000. He thinks that the job was planned by professionals—amateurs could never have snipped three acres clean so quickly—and that it likely would have required a crew of seven pickers, aided by headlamps and two pickup trucks. As for who would be motivated to carry out such a theft, Dunkenberger says he is reluctant to accuse a fellow grower, but can find no other logical explanation. Wine grapes are too sweet to eat. They perish quickly, so they are typically crushed or pressed within 24 hours. “A lot of people are under contract to grow grapes,” he told me, adding that this year’s wet weather had led to disappointing harvests. “If you can’t fulfill that contract, you don’t get paid.” When I spoke with Lieutenant Mark Hollandsworth of the local sheriff’s department, he supported Dunkenberger’s theory: “The rain this year did spoil a lot of grapes.”

European grape growers have also been targeted. A particularly audacious caper made headlines in October, when thieves used a large commercial harvester to steal 1.8 tons of pricey Riesling grapes from a vineyard near a busy supermarket in southern Germany. And last year, several French vineyards reported huge thefts, including a total of more than 7.5 tons of grapes stolen from various Bordeaux farms. Bad weather that summer had cut crop yields drastically, making local growers the prime suspects. As one observer told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity, “There’s a great temptation to help oneself from [the vineyard] next door.”

Or, apparently, from any type of farm that grows what’s known as high-value produce—think avocados, nuts, exotic fruits. One pecan grower in southern Georgia told me that anyone with a $50 tool called a Garden Weasel can “easily pick up 300 pounds in eight hours, if the trees have been shook.” In New Zealand, where the price of an avocado has spiked to $3.30 following two years of disappointing harvests, one pair of thieves was recently caught transporting a haul worth $4,300 inside duvet covers. Earlier this year, police in Seville, Spain, apprehended three vehicles filled with nearly 9,000 pounds of citrus. When a rear door of one car was opened, oranges spilled onto the road like lava.

These thefts may seem ludicrous: Even when demand for a particular item is high, food is still relatively cheap, and crops are bulky. Other types of agricultural crime, like cattle rustling or equipment theft, offer much higher profit margins for far less labor. But food plucked from the dirt is untraceable. And there may also be a tendency to regard fruits and vegetables as something less than private property. “I watch people in stores eat their way through the vegetable and fruit sections,” says James Lynch, a criminologist at the University of Maryland. “You wouldn’t steal a tractor, but when it comes to food, people think: This came from the earth. God gave it to us, and anybody can take it.

Indeed, as long as people have been growing crops, other people have been stealing them, explains Alan Hodges, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida. He is quick to add that the transition from foraging to “sedentary settlement patterns” some 10,000 years ago was a net win for humanity. For the same reasons it enabled theft, historians note, it also helped give rise to efficient taxation: With farming, assets—crops—were suddenly visible, and each harvest signaled a new tax season. People of a certain sensibility might call that theft by another name. But for Hodges, the cultural boon created by agriculture more than compensated for its costs. “Farmers became the victims of property crimes,” he says. “But all the attributes of civilization that we recognize today also flourished.”

This article appears in the December 2018 print edition with the headline “Easy Pickings.”