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Las Cruces Sun-News, Shari V. Hill, Associated Press
Greg Daviet, farm manager of Dixie Ranch, right, instructs Security Concepts supervisors Juan Correa, left, and Leonard Montoya, center, on which portions of the pecan farm to patrol Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012 on the property in Las Cruces, N.M.

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Mesilla Valley pecan farmer Greg Daviet prides himself on his friendliness. But this time of year, he totes a gun around his farm and pays security guards to make the rounds through his orchards, day and night.

And, if you're a stranger who winds up on his property, he'll take down your license plate number and ask to see an ID.

The measures, he said, are attempts to deter pecan theft, which farmers say spikes in years of high prices — like this one.

"I'm a friendly guy, but during pecan season, I have to walk around armed all time, so thieves know this is not a place to come," he said.

Officials said they're noticing a spike in reports of pecan theft this year, thanks to high prices for the crop.

Tuesday, a price report showed that in-shell pecans with a relatively high nut meat content were selling for between $2.52 and $2.84 per pound in a region that covers New Mexico, Arizona and west Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some 56 million pounds of pecans are expected to be produced this season in New Mexico, according to a federal forecast.

Adding to the problem this year, some growers said, is that frequent wet weather is keeping heavy machinery out of the orchards and prolonging the harvest season. That means pecans are more exposed — not only to thievery, but also to crows and pests. By this time a year ago, the harvest was all but complete.

People with tarps and sticks sneak into orchards and strip trees of their nuts, said Las Cruces pecan buyer and farmer Phillip Arnold. Farmers see the results: ground that has been hand-raked and trees that are mostly bare.

"These thieves are getting pretty brazen about it," he said. "They're out there in broad daylight. Then they get into their trucks and drive off."

People who take pecans sometimes don't think they're doing anything wrong, Arnold said. The act is akin to walking into a homeowner's front yard and stealing something, he said. Produce is a farmers' livelihood.

"We've gone through a lot of sweat and heartache to get these crops there," he said. "You've spent money all year long to produce that crop, and this is your pay day."

A group of about two dozen farmers met with Do-a Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison and a representative from the 3rd Judicial District Attorney's office in December to express their concerns.

Theft seems to be on the incline for not only pecans but also for alfalfa, a crop that's also experiencing a cost spike, Garrison said. But sheriff's deputies are being more vigilant, he said.

Because more property owners are carrying arms and hiring security guards, Garrison said he's worried about the conflicts that could arise.

"There's a concern that someone may get hurt either trying to protect pecans or trying to steal pecans."

San Saba Pecans and Green Valley Pecan Co., which buy pecans, require that sellers show an ID, Arnold said. That's partly for food safety and tracking purposes, but it also helps deter thieves from trying to pawn off nuts. Still, there are buying stands that spring up along roadsides - which might not have the same standards, he said.

Arnold, president of the New Mexico Pecan Grower's Association, said his group is likely going to propose legislation in upcoming years that would help to limit pecan theft, such as requiring buyers to register themselves.

Daviet noted that farmers' crops aren't all profit. The first pecans harvested essentially go to pay the bills for growing the trees. It's the last bit of the crop that wind up as a paycheck.

"When people take those last nuts, they're literally taking food right out of the mouths of my family," he said. "It doesn't take much theft for a farmer to really feel it in his pocketbook."

Daviet said he's been fortunate this year — likely because of his intensive security program — not to have been the victim of theft.

About one-quarter of the state's pecans have been picked so far, Arnold estimated.

New Mexico state law spells out that larcenies involving more than $500 in value can be punished as a felony, according to District Attorney Amy Orlando.

Garrison said his agency and the district attorney are prosecuting all pecan thefts, misdemeanors and felonies alike.

"If you get caught, you're going to be held accountable for it," he said.

Penalties for misdemeanor theft include six months to a year in prison, a fine up to $1,000 or both, according to county officials.

Depending on the degree, felony larceny convictions can carry anywhere from 18 months imprisonment and a $5,000 fine, up to nine years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.

Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, http://www.lcsun-news.com