Farm Noir Tales

Farm Noir | Photo: avardwoolaver/Flickr/Creative Commons License

There's plenty of reasons Los Angeles is the home of noir.

Stereotypically it's a city of transients, all trying to get ahead, all fighting for a limited number of spots in the same industry, leading to resentments and animosities and personal feuds that can only be solved in the most dramatic, and criminal, of ways. It's sprawling, an archipelago of towns rather than one cohesive and distinct city center, the highways acting as concrete canals to different cultures and varying social classes, all living on top of one another in the Thirty Mile Zone from downtown. And of course there's the less romantic, but probably more reasonable, explanation: Since most of the noir writers in the '40s and '50s lived in L.A., they simply set their stories in locales they were familiar with.

But with writers of noir always focusing their stories on the ne'er-do-wells lingering in the alleys, they rarely turned their inspiration radars away from the city and into the country. As a recent spate of stories points out, that may have been a mistake, seeing as the farms of California and the rest of the world are breeding grounds for noir-esque crime tales.

Here's a brief round-up:

"The Big Steal ... of Avocados"
Desperation sows the seeds for wickedness. When people are out of work for long periods of time, and there's no blossoming job market looming on the horizon, crime statistics go up. Generally it's petty theft, born out of necessity and frustration. But last year, farms in California saw a crime spree the likes of which would fit nicely next to stories of alcohol bootleggers. All you have to do is swap out the booze for produce.

Grape, corn and alfalfa crops were plucked by thieves. Gas was siphoned out of various farming implements. Copper wire was snatched by scavengers, looking to trade in the metal for a few bucks. They even went after the bees:

In Madera County, about 130 miles east of San Francisco, officials saw a rash of bee burglaries this year, as a shortage of able-bodied pollinators drove up the price. "They'd just go in there and they smoke the bees, sedate them and take them," Sheriff John Anderson said. "And they wear protective gear just like the pros."

But there was an even greater threat lurking, focused on plucking one of California's most beloved crops. During their investigation of farm thefts, deputies discovered "an organized crime ring of sorts" who focused on illegally snatching and selling the iconic avocado. In other words, a criminal enterprise focused on making some money on the ... green market?

"Sunset Bale-evard"
While thefts in rural California have seemingly abated over the past year, you can't say the same for the rest of the country. But while the thefts mentioned above make some sort of sense if you look at them through the criminal lens -- you can picture how criminals can "move" a bunch of grapes or gallons of gasoline -- what's most shocking about this recent story out of Denver is the banality of the object being stolen.

Law enforcement officials said they could do little to prevent the thefts or catch the culprits. Most of the hay is nipped at night along remote roads, from fields and barns hundreds of yards from the nearest home. Because one bundle of hay tends to look like every other one, once a bale is stolen, reclaiming it is harder than finding a needle in a -- well, never mind.

So, no. A whole warehouse full of hay bales may not have the "sexy crime" quality that's generally found in noir. But the ease of theft, and the seemingly random and unconnected parties participating in the thieving, gives the story a socioeconomic subtext that all great noir contains.

"Kiss Bee Deadly"

There's a certain element of seriousness lacking in the pair of farm theft stories above, and that's because they also lack one of the most basic elements in noirs: Murder. Luckily for us, the bloodthirsty public, the final story out of Australia contains an extremely dramatic body count. Just how dramatic? Try millions of dead bodies.

Last year, after a weekend away at home with their families, seven beehive owners in Batesman Bay, Australia, went out to harvest some honey. When they got there, instead of finding their 1,600 or so hives humming with life, they found nothing but honeycombs of death. Their hives were systematically poisoned in an organized attack:

The attacks appear targeted, with the offenders poisoning a series of hidden, remote bushland sites, some up to 40km apart.

Meaning that whoever wanted to cause the nearly $300,000 in damage didn't just see a random bunch of beehives and start spraying their pesticide. This attack was pre-motivated and highly personal.

A targeted attack, a missing motive, a massive amount of money, and plenty of death: The elements are for a perfect noir.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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