Moonlighting Thieves Strip Vines Overnight

Police have photographed and sampled the mud tyre tracks left by mechanical grape harvesters in a bid to trace those responsible for spiriting away 30 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes harvested from a Hérault wine farmer’s vineyard on the night of a recent full moon.

In an hour mechanical harvesters can strip what it would take ten hand pickers a day to do.

Roland Cavaillé a wine grower in Villeneuve-lès-Béziers told Le Parisien that thieves harvested two hectares of his vineyards without his knowledge on a Sunday night taking advantage of the light from a full moon. He said the lost harvest represented a year’s work, three quarters of his annual harvest and worth some 15 000 euros.

While he is insured against inclement weather the policy does not cover direct theft. Commenters in one newspaper which reported the theft, offered to start up a subscription to help the farmer with one reader putting up 150 Euros and calling on 100 fellow readers to follow suit.

Other winegrowers expressed surprise that the noise of the self-propelled mechanical grape harvesters, heavy duty machines which in one hour can harvest the equivalent of what 10 hand pickers can do in a full day, had not disturbed the farmer or his neighbours. One farmer did say he had heard noises at around 0500.

However the dispossessed farmer said: “The plot that the thieves visited was fairly isolated, it is a few kilometres outside the village and located near a river. The thieves were able to work safely. This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. There was a similar robbery in the region four years ago, and it appears that another complaint was made to police this year also. “

Tyres like these leave a distinct ID in mud tracks

Investigators called to the scene were not short of clues, the machines used in the clandestine harvest and a truck which transported the grapes, left mud tracks and a trail of debris. The tyres of the 6000 kg machines can be identified reasonably easily from their treads and other parts of their profile such as outside diameter and section width . A tyre manufacturer’s spec suggests the machines used were likely to have been fitted with the equivalent of 900/60R32 traction drive super volume radials on a recommended rim and tracking them ought not to prove a major problem.

Mystery also surrounds where the 30 tons of grapes would have been taken for pressing and processing as all the facilities in the area are known, controlled and this would make a rogue load relatively easy to identify.

The winemaker Roland Cavaillé however said the people who did it “used harvesting machine and thus must themselves own vineyards … they are professionals already in the business so it would not be too difficult for them to mix my crop up with the grapes they harvest and profit from all my hard work” .

The story prompted newspaper readers to sound off with tales of what they claimed were other frequent incursions into the French breadbasket including raids of prized mushrooms in the region by “Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians and others who sell our mushrooms to Spanish factories to bottle and sell back to us,” wrote one indignant commenter in Le Midi.

Meanwhile although the Languedoc has greatly upgraded its wine varieties and beefed up winemaking techniques in the past decade, regional agricultural figures suggest the situation in the département remains precarious.

The Department of Agriculture says that between 2008 and 2009, the income for farmers in the Languedoc-Roussillon decreased sharply. It says the “average income before tax per worker” has halved from €12 200 to €6 500. The decline is even more pronounced for those employed in vineyards. For farmers involved in appellation controlee production, incomes were 66.5% down year on year, part of a downward trend seen for the past decade despite a sharp improvement in product quality.

Since 2003, winegrowers in the region have been confronted by crisis. More and more farmers are abandoning vineyards with some 42 000 hectares of vineyards lost between 2004 and 2010, in Languedoc-Roussillon. The Hérault leads every other département in France for special income top up payments from social security to hard pressed farmers.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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