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Rustlers leave Lonesome Dove — for catfish and wine grapes

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For most Americans, rustling brings up iconic Lonesome Dove images of ‘borrowing’ a herd from Mexico or watching Jake Spoon cross the line into horse thievery. But modern-day rustlers have moved on to catfish and wine grapes.

Rustlers were once satisfied with cattle and horses. For most Americans, rustling brings up iconic Lonesome Dove images of ‘borrowing’ a herd from Mexico or watching Jake Spoon cross the line into horse thievery. Whether print or film, rustlers usually met their fate at the end of a rope — a tidy morality play about sin and its wages.

It seems fair to label rustlers as an opportunistic lot. It seems fair to think that rustlers were never fixated on livestock. And it even seems fair to guess that had there been money in it — they might have rustled fish. Fish? Fact trumps fiction, because it was only a few years back that the aquaculture industry was hit with significant theft problems. Catfish rustlers put a dent in a farmer’s pocketbook with a classic ruse. They siphoned off fish from tank-loads headed for processing, dumped the aqua-booty into the back of a pick-up truck, and doled out their ‘fresh catch’ to local fish markets. A wink, a nod, nobody any the wiser — at least for a while. The weight differentials of the ‘lightened’ trucks eventually landed the thieves in the back of a squad car. Nobody was hanged over the incidents though.

Having tried cows, horses and catfish — rustlers have moved on to the sunny slopes of German vineyards. Several months ago, Spiegel reported that a top German wine grape grower woke up to empty acreage — literally, his vineyard had been picked clean. Maybe 5,500 pounds of grapes gone overnight. The grape burglars brazenly drove pickers into the vineyard and calmly snagged $130,000 worth of Pinot Noir.

And the culprits? Police speculation wasn’t quite aimed at any Jake Spoon-type characters, but rather at other wine grape producers who might have had a poor season. Come again? Regardless of whether true, it’s a bit surreal for U.S. growers to picture: “My crops were a bit off this year……errrrr……I guess I’ll drive some pickers over to my neighbor’s farm this evening and take his.” So much for highbrow European society. American farmers, it must be said, tend to limit harvest to the their own acreage.

Anyhow, there must be a fair number of disgruntled, German wine grape growers sneaking around at night — because the thefts have started again. The Associated Press reports a rash of wine grape rustling; over a dozen incidents. It’s the typical scenario: nighttime larceny with high-value grapes stolen literally days before harvest. The German grape rustling has involved both mechanized raids and hand-pickers on foot, and with premium ice wine grapes still on the vine, growers fear they’ll be waking up to more bare vineyards.

Again, no one has been hanged yet, but with six-figure losses mounting — German farmers may be looking for some rope, or at least thinking some very dark thoughts.

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