Northern Vanderburgh County farmer Randy Kron nervously grinned while explaining his plan this year to grow crops on about 2,000 acres across Southwestern Indiana.
Kron said he took a gamble by starting the growing season early. This year's warmer temps and sunnier skies put him roughly a month ahead of schedule to plant corn. By Easter weekend, the majority of his crop was planted and the anhydrous ammonia applied.
Kron said hopefully his luck with temperatures will be the same as keeping the ammonia out of the hands of eager old-fashioned methamphetamine cooks.
Four years ago, the white cylindrical wagons he uses to apply the ammonia were a target for meth cooks. But this year, Kron said ,he's had more time to worry about the weather. Law enforcement and anhydrous co-op managers around the region said the same.
Today, more meth cooks continue to opt for the more portable one-pot method than risk stealing the ammonia from area farms. And with a new additive to help early planting tainting supplies, anhydrous thefts have been nonexistent. But like the weather, members of the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Drug Task Force said it may be too early to determine the impact.
Over the past two years, the one-pot meth lab surpassed the larger and more confusing anhydrous version. Meth cooks now use a first-aid cold pack to create the ammonia they once stole. The new method brought the drug manufacture into urban areas such as Evansville, where there are more places to hide and supplies are available at most local drugstores.
"The one-pot method is more user-friendly, so more people tend to use it," said Brock Hensley, an Evansville Police Department detective assigned to the Drug Task Force. "But it may be too early to tell."
Kron said anhydrous ammonia is crucial in creating soil conditions suitable for the corn he sells, which is turned into food such as taco shells and chips. The growing season begins by cleaning up the fields and applying nitrogen, which is in the form of anhydrous ammonia. Then the corn seeds are planted and nature takes its course.
Anhydrous for Kron Farms comes from the Posey County Co-op, which is owned by a group of farmers across the region. The chemical sells for $860 a ton. It is distributed from the co-ops in mobile cylinders that hold four to six tons. Eric Wiseman, a manager at the Posey Co-op Poseyville distribution center, said this has been a quiet year for anhydrous thefts. It also was the first year the co-op has left the gates so Posey County Sheriff's deputies could patrol the entire center.
"Before, we'd lock the gates and there was no way for police to get in here," Wiseman said. "This year, we backed off on our security and we haven't had any problems at all."
Warrick County farmers also have seen no problems with anhydrous thefts this year, so far. Sheriff Brett Kruse said like Vanderburgh, meth over the past two years has been made using the one-pot method.
"They're not stealing much anhydrous — they don't have to," Kruse said. "They think it's a lot safer because if it escapes, it'll burn you."
Kruse said the simpler one-pot method also leaves out the danger of extracting anhydrous from one of the field tanks. The chemical shoots out in an ultracold temperature that freeze-dries skin. It also is not explosive, but it can suffocate.
Gibson County Sheriff George Ballard said despite the danger of mishandling anhydrous, hsome old-fashioned meth cooks may prefer it to using the one-pot method. Farmers now take extra steps to protect any unfinished anhydrous by storing the tanks overnight in secret locations, or placing them in a barn or near a home. But some Gibson County fields are far from any secure place to put or store them.
"We'll have some this year — no doubt about it," Ballard said. "I know they're planting now, but I think it's too early to tell."
State Farm Bureau President Don Villwock said most farmers already go out of their way to protect their anhydrous supply, even if it means taking up to a half-hour out of precious daytime. With the number of farmers decreasing, those that are left cover more land, which requires more chemical at one time. One farmer may go through 15 of the four ton tanks in a day, so local co-ops will provide them with extra so they do not run out. Villwock said the crisis farmers faced a few years ago with anhydrous thefts was a hard lesson to protect the supply.
"But even then, we still may have a few remote farmers who get hit," Villwock said. "It's definitely a challenge."
Kron said the fight to protect the ammonia is not to prevent the loss from the chemical meth cooks may take, but that they normally leave the tank open. The amount a meth cook will take equals $11, but the loss of the rest of the chemical leaking out of the tank is about $3,400. The cost to repair the hoses hooked to the tank also can reach $1,000.
"It can get expensive," Kron said. "That's why we had to get smarter."
Kron said his decision to plant early this year also could cost a yield in his corn crop if the soil fails to consistently stay about 70 degrees until the first chutes break ground. But in the fight against anhydrous theft farmers have another chemical on their side. Early planting this year led them to use a chemical called N-Serve, which helps hold the chemical in the ground and withstand spring rains. The stabilizing chemical also sours meth recipes.
"I guess that throws them off with whatever they're trying to make," Kron said. "Maybe that's keeping them away."