PLANT CITY — As an overnight freeze threatened his strawberry crop, grower Carl Grooms raced to turn on his sprinklers, desperate to protect blooms with a protective ice layer.
Instead of a fine sprinkle, however, he got gushers. Someone had stolen about 60 brass sprinklers.
"That's sort of like a grower's nightmare," he said. "What are you doing stealing my sprinklers right before I'm cranking the water off?"
As if the freezing cold hasn't been enough of a problem this year, strawberry farmers are dealing with an outbreak of brass thefts, increasingly common in recent years with the dire economy and demand for metals.
The brass thieves usually sneak into the fields under the cover of night. They kick over and remove a brass rod and attached sprinkler head, drop them into a 5-gallon bucket and move on to the next sprinkler.
The brass parts can be sold for $10 or more, farmers say. Grooms said each sprinkler and rod combination costs him about $25.
The sprinklers are used only during the October planting season and for overnight freezes, so it could be a while before farmers realize they are out possibly hundreds of sprinklers.
Grooms has learned to keep some spares. Still, he wasted money and precious time replacing the equipment while his berries endured the cold.
"They're not courteous thieves, in other words," said Ted Campbell, director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.
Campbell said he has heard of dozens of sprinkler thefts since the planting season, including a sweep of roughly 100 sprinklers in Dover.
"That's a much higher risk because when plants are first transplanted in the ground, they need to be wet," he said.
Matt Parke, manager of Parkesdale Farms in Plant City, said he has Rain Bird sprinklers, a popular brand, spaced every 40 feet on his family's 140-acre strawberry farm.
Replacing the sprinklers after a theft is tedious, he said.
"What might take them an hour is going to take us a whole day of work, maybe two" to repair, he said. "There's really nothing you can do about it except report it."
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The problem is that farmers are easy targets, said Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Homer Brown.
About 8,000 acres in Hillsborough County are used for growing strawberries, making video surveillance largely ineffective, he said.
"You've got to have one of those cameras within about 20 yards to get a good description of something," Brown said. "It's not like it's in one hot spot."
The rural environment also makes things tricky for deputies who patrol the roads looking for mischief. Sheriff's cruisers are pretty obvious on a desolate road.
Authorities have more discreet means of tracking suspects.
Sheriff's investigative Lt. Mike Willette said his agency noticed a spike in brass thefts on farms in mid January. He doesn't have hard data on the number of thefts but reported a few recent "success stories" in apprehending suspects.
In a February case, detectives caught three men suspected of stealing sprinkler heads from strawberry farms as they were cutting copper wire from the ceiling of a Seffner business.
Detectives followed one man from his home and watched as he met up with another man at 1 a.m. As the pair entered a wellness center in the Shangri La subdivision with a ladder and bolt cutters, a friend warned them by cell phone that they were being watched, according to the report.
The men ran away but didn't get away. Deputies said they admitted stealing sprinkler heads recently and selling the parts to Interstate Recyclers in Seffner. The recycling shop, as required by state law, showed deputies documentation of the sale and photos of the suspects and the sprinklers.
Even though tougher metal recycling laws require shops to step up how they keep track of sales, Campbell said he still faults the shops for accepting these parts.
But Willette offered another perspective.
"They don't know it's stolen property. That's why they're getting photos," Willette said.
Grooms said his sprinkler thieves have not been caught. Nothing from his property has been stolen since the last freeze.
Still, this season will go down as one of the worst he's experienced in 37 years.
That's mainly because of the freezes. But sprinkler thefts don't help.
"I don't want to be aggravated with someone stealing my Rain Birds,'' he said, "on top of all that other aggravation."