Farmer rented plane, spotted his tractor on native reserve
WINCHESTER — Earlier this year, a brazen thief drove off with a $350,000 New Holland tractor-and-disc combination in broad daylight from a vegetable farmer’s field in Norfolk County in Western Ontario. The theft of the 560-horsepower, articulating tractor and its 30-foot-wide attached implement was one of the higher profile rural Ontario crimes in 2023 — amid a wave of thievery that has bedeviled farm country since the pandemic.
Solid numbers on farm theft are hard to come by as are so many stolen tractors and farm implements that are never found. Convictions are also rare. Of 37,041 vehicles stolen last year in Ontario, there were only 2,078 charges laid.
Fortunately for New Holland tractor owner John Chary, police recovered his tractor four days after it was stolen, thanks to some quick investigative work by the farmer himself. Acting on a tip, Chary said his brother and a buddy rented an airplane and, from the air, spotted the tractor on a nearby native reserve. The cultivator took another month to turn up — also on the reserve, he said — and required $80,000 in repairs after recovery. No suspects have been identified in connection with the theft, according to the Norfolk County OPP.
“You know, in the not too distant past, you just wouldn’t have heard of this kind of a thing,” observed Gary Klyn, owner of GJ’s Harvest Centre Inc., who fixed the damaged Chary Produce equipment.
Klyn, a Burgessville-based Claas dealer, said it appeared the cultivator was being disassembled to turn into scrap metal. However, John Chary suggested the involved criminals may have been breaking it down for shipment as a complete unit. Chary said that his insurance covered the hefty repairs.
While Statistics Canada does not track stolen farm-machinery, overall theft is on the rise across the country. Thefts of property above $5,000 in value (a category that includes farm equipment but excludes road vehicles) increased 16 % between 2021 and 2022. Meanwhile, motor vehicle thefts increased 24 % between 2021 and 2022. The number of vehicles stolen has reached “crisis” proportions, according to Équité Association, which compiles crime data for the Canadian insurance industry. In Ontario, vehicle thefts jumped 31 % during the first half of 2023, compared to a year earlier. And Ford, GM and RAM pickup trucks — all popular with farmers — were among the top-10 most stolen vehicles in 2021.
The Canadian Finance and Leasing Association reported this year that a vehicle is stolen every six minutes in Canada. That would mean more than 87,000 vehicles are stolen each year. The leasing association concluded that most thefts are the result of organized crime rings, who use profits to finance drug and gun trafficking and even human smuggling. Canada is known as a donor country because thieves believe that stealing here is easy to get away with.
Equipment and tractor thefts appear regularly in the provincial police blotter. In October, two 1987 John Deere loader-tractors — one a compact unit, the other a larger model — disappeared from a Winchester lumber yard. That same month, a compact John Deere 1025R loader and backhoe unit, valued at $30,000, was stolen overnight in Dufferin County. An even more brazen incident occurred at Kitchener-based Connect Equipment, where two men attempted a day-time grab-and-go robbery in May. The duo and three accomplices sprinted out of the store with chainsaws and cut-off tools and several employees in hot pursuit. The thieves jumped into a vehicle but the hapless crew crashed the car against a skidsteer loader in the dealership yard while attempting to speed away. Police arrested five people in connection with the incident, including one who was caught and held by dealership staff.
Laird Weagant, co-owner of Weagant Farm Supplies in Brockville, said that his Kubota dealership hasn’t been a victim of a recent theft, though “we’ve been hearing of implements being taken off equipment in their fields, that type of thing.”
“The speculation is that the theft takes place and then somewhere down the road, it’s quickly driven into a container or a truck or a van box. I mean that’s the speculation. And then, where it goes from there, God only knows,” Weagant said.
The business last dealt with a serious theft attempt when somebody tried to hotwire an excavator in the company yard in 2018. The culprit failed to start the machine but caused about $1,000 in damage. In a more bizarre recent incident, Weagant’s phone and alarm system went down, but not because thieves tried to break into the dealership. They simply wanted the copper telephone line in front of his address and took a half kilometre chunk of it.
The Weagant company augmented existing fence and security systems by adding a series of large concrete blocks around the property perimeter in 2015. But he recalled a time when even a fence was unnecessary. “Right into the 80s and 90s (theft) was a small issue. We finally put a fence up just to try to keep people back.”
At Greentech John Deere dealership in Winchester, sales manager Max Aebdziak said stolen equipment and tractors could end up in eastern Europe or Africa, as that was the case with tractors taken in his native country of France.
“It definitely seems like thefts are up just about everywhere,” D&S Downham Equipment owner Mark Downham, a Stratford-area Kubota dealer said. He blamed the justice system. “These guys get caught and then they’re back out in weeks. There’s not enough repercussions to keep from doing it again.”
Victims of theft visit the dealership “somewhat regularly,” he said, looking to replace stolen chainsaws and utility vehicles.
About 10 years ago, someone stole a tractor from his dealership, but the onboard GPS allowed him to track the unit as the thief transported it down the highway by a truck. The police canine unit caught the culprit within 100 feet of the truck, on foot, after he ditched it. “Known, scumbag criminal, and three months later, he was back on the street,” Downham said.