The stolen goods are mainly for resale: The food ends up in roving street markets and the metal goes to scrap dealers. Last year alone more than 20,000 thefts were reported at Spanish farms. The Interior Ministry says it has no comparative figures from other years, or for so far in 2012. But authorities and farm groups blame the thefts on Spain's economic crisis and say they are a big enough problem for the patrols, which began last season, to stay in force this year.
Here in Sant Climent, a village of 4,000 just outside Barcelona, the booty this time of year is cherries - dark red, shiny, and sweet - dangling like ornaments from stubby trees in orchards rising up the slopes of a river valley. They're everywhere, with people selling them from their front doorsteps and on stands inside bars. A drawing of a cherry adorns the mayor's business card.
What is happening is hardly an invasion of starving unemployed people gorging themselves on cherries and trudging back into town with red-stain criminal evidence all over them. Nor is Spain's agricultural sector, which accounts for about 3 percent of GDP, in jeopardy. But the theft reflects a real problem for Spain's farmers and indicates how harsh times are making ordinary people turn to crime.
"This has emerged because of social alarm. Because of the crisis, crime is up," said the local police chief, Ernesto Banos. "And when cherry season comes around, people say, 'what now, cherries? OK, let's go get them."
The usual suspects can be surprising, or not. "Retirees, unemployed people, young people," said Banos.
In Spain, theft from farms - an unguarded field is an easy target - has always been around to some degree.
"But the increase that has taken place since the crisis started a few years ago has been spectactular," said Estrella Larrazabal, spokeswoman for Asaja, a farm association. "Thieves take anything they can get their hands on."
The wild side
And things have happened in the Spanish countryside that make it look like the Wild West, or in some cases, Wall Street.
A rancher in central Spain went out one morning to view his 200-head herd of cattle and found two prized calves which had just been released into the pack shot in the head at point-blank range, and perfectly slaughtered. They were to have been prized breeders. But only the bony carcasses, with heads attached, remained in the muddy field. "Those animals were phenomenal. They were spectacular. Really fat, very well treated, and after five or six days in the field, they killed them," said the rancher, Eulogio Morales.
A farmer in Cordoba caught some men stealing plowing equipment from him. They were arrested, tried, convicted, and fined. But they went back to his farm repeatedly demanding he pay the fine, and eventually threatened to kill him if he did not. The farmer, Ignacio Fernandez de Mesa, wore a hidden recording device during the last showdown, and nabbed them. A trial on the death-threat charge is pending.
Sheep rancher and lemon grower Vicente Carrion, head of the local branch of a farm lobby in the lush eastern region of Murcia, said thieves plan their hits according to what crops are getting good prices. So they are like futures traders, only instead of monitoring oil or gold, they watch artichoke or orange prices. "If there is no price, they don't touch it." Carrion said.
"Prices are not stable over the course of the year. When they peak, that is when they strike."
In Sant Climente, police say that every night they man checkpoints looking for stolen countryside goodies. The town is small, so strangers' faces stand out, and officers also know what kind of vehicles to look out for: "Usually beaten up old vans," said Joan Prunera, a Catalan regional police chief from a neighboring town who is helping out with the patrols.
High up on a hill amid a grove of 1,500 cherry trees, their trunks about the thickness of a man's shin, grower Domenec Tugas, 69, and his wife Pilar patiently pick cherries. He laments the need for the police patrols that make their way up into his land in all-terrain vehicles on narrow, unpaved roads.
"People have always stolen a bit. You are used to that. But with the crisis it has gone up."