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Published March 04, 2011, 11:07 AM

Grain theft case has buyers thinking about customers

NEW HARTFORD, Iowa — Asking questions, filling out appropriate paperwork and verifying sales is the best way to guard against grain theft, local elevator officials say.

By: Matthew Wilde, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

NEW HARTFORD, Iowa — Asking questions, filling out appropriate paperwork and verifying sales is the best way to guard against grain theft, local elevator officials say.

A recent case regarding the alleged theft of an estimated $140,000 worth of corn and possibly soybeans has local grain buyers thinking about how to protect farmers. While there’s no guarantee another grain heist — though rare — won’t happen again, buyers said they do their best to prevent it.

Dennis Gerloff of rural New Hartford is accused of stealing around 40,000 bushels of grain from his employer, Brad Feckers, over a five-year period. He sold the grain at Farmers Cooperative Co. in New Hartford, Feckers said.

Both Gerloff and Farmers Cooperative have declined to comment.

Gerloff is charged with ongoing criminal conduct and first-degree theft, both felonies. Last week Judge Bryan McKinley set an April 5 trial date.

Dean Ohrt, central and east region origination director for Heartland Co-op, said its members are protected.

"We have procedures in place to insure integrity of contracts. Producers have to give authority in writing who can buy and sell (grain), Ohrt said.

"When someone comes across the scale with a load of corn, you ask who’s it for," he added. "It comes down to knowing your customers."

Heartland conducts millions of dollars worth of grain transactions every day, Ohrt said. The co-op doesn’t buy grain from someone unless they fill out proper paperwork.

If a recognized farm employee brings in corn and soybeans, the co-op follows written orders of the owner. If a stranger showed up with a load to sell, a check wouldn’t be issued until ownership is verified, Ohrt said. When a co-op member arrives with grain, it’s assumed that the grain belongs to them.

Though rare, it’s not uncommon for a farmer to pay an employee with grain. Even then, Ohrt said, the farmer needs to fill out a form stating the amount allowed.

"We hope our procedures in place, that are reviewed constantly, will give some protection," Ohrt said.

According to Feckers, who lives near New Hartford and farms in Butler and Black Hawk counties, Gerloff was a full-time employee for seven years and a trusted friend. He helped with harvest and hauled grain.

Feckers said Gerloff stole eight to 10 semi loads of mostly corn a year when Feckers and his family were on vacation or away from the farm.

Wil Manweiler, grain merchandiser at Dunkerton Co-op, said anyone who sells grain needs to open up an account. Farmers need to authorize employees to sell grain, he said. While the business wants new customers, employees would ask several questions of someone they didn’t know attempting to sell grain.

"You ask questions and see if any red flags come up. We’re going to protect our customers," Manweiler said.

At Voorhies Grain, manager Nolan Dewall said employees know their customers so well that someone illegally selling grain would be easy to catch.

"You would really question people off the street," he said. "If someone new (tried to sell) we wouldn’t take their word on it, we would verify."

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