When Sanford, N.C., farmer John Gross returned from an out-of-town trip the second weekend in March and found the door to one of his greenhouses open, he didn't think too much about it.

The large 300-foot long X 36-foot wide greenhouse was filled with young tobacco plants that were ready for transplanting. Small by North Carolina standards, Gross planned to use the plants to grow 130 acres of tobacco.

Like virtually all North Carolina tobacco growers, Gross planned to start planting April 15, but it was evident after the first week in April he would have to find transplants from another source.

“I can see the greenhouse from my front porch and someone is always around our house, so I didn't think much about the greenhouse door being opened until I saw some of the plants in the house turning brown several days later,” Gross says.

After several visits by county and state Extension specialists, the reality and the potential devastation of the unknown greenhouse visitors became evident.

“It took us nearly a month to put all the pieces together. Now, that we know the facts, it is clear some person or persons clearly meant to put us out of business,” Gross says.

Had the saboteurs simply sprayed the tender young plants with glyphosate or paraquat, the damage would have been quickly evident and the tobacco plants would have been just as dead as they turned out to be.

The herbicide used to kill the plants had a very low odor. The final lab test result on the tobacco plants is still pending at press time. This herbicide killed the plants more slowly and closely mimics other type injury. The chemicals were effective, killing over $30,000 worth of plants and contaminating trays and fabric and other materials in the greenhouse, raising the total tab to over $50,000.

“If I had transplanted those tobacco plants when I intended to plant them, and they came up in the field and died, it would have cost me over $500,000, and insurance would likely not have paid me anything. There would have been no way to determine when or how the damage occurred,” Gross says.

Gross says his small family farming operation may not have been able to absorb that kind of loss.

One of the inspectors who came to Gross's farm to test the dying plants says this was the best case of sabotage he has ever investigated. Gross adds that the way the plants were sprayed, probably with a small backpack sprayer, would never have been noticed had he taken the plants out of the greenhouse.

Now, he says, it is easy to see the spray pattern, even to the point of where the highest and lowest volume of the chemical was used. And, it is now evident how the criminals sprayed around wall fixtures and other impediments in the greenhouse.

Gross says he doesn't know of any enemies he has who would want to put him out of business. However, he says he doesn't believe the damage was caused by a random act of an extremist anti-tobacco group.

“I'm a small-acreage, family farmer and had an activist group wanted to make a point, they could have sprayed glyphosate or other popular chemicals on the young plants and would have done a much quicker job.” They would have chosen one of the larger tobacco growers in the state.”

He points out, the story would have been bigger news.

Instead, Gross says, there is a real possibility the sabotage efforts would have gone unnoticed had he planted his tobacco as scheduled.

Cool temperatures put a hold on tobacco planting for growers across the state. Avoiding frost damage to his tobacco plants may have saved Gross several hundred thousand dollars.

Gross had an independent lab test the damaged plants for chemicals. The results were surprising and remain confidential as legal authorities try to sort through the case. Every thing was too well planned to have been just a random case of vandalism, he says.

For one thing, if they had used common agricultural chemicals, I would have smelled the spray when I went into the house that Sunday afternoon. Because of what they used, everything looked normal for a few days, he says.

Gross Farms is truly a small family farming operation. He still grows 130 acres of tobacco, but most of the sweet corn and other crops he grows are sold directly at a family store. They also have a pick-your-own strawberry operation and regularly take visitors on tours of the farm, including a pumpkin patch for the kids every fall.

“Rumors are rampant, he says. The facts are that we had other crops tested and none showed any traces of the chemicals used to kill our tobacco plants,” he concludes. “That was the main reason we called the newspaper to tell them about the incident. We want to assure all our customers that no dangerous chemicals were sprayed on any of our crops, other than the tobacco transplants,” Gross stresses.

“I don't know of any enemies. I don't rent a lot of land, certainly not away from anybody. I don't have reason to be involved in any big land or labor deals that would cause someone to be upset by the way I do business. It is just a mystery as to why anyone would want to do this,” the North Carolina grower laments.

“If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. I hope farmers will be aware of the risks of sabotage, regardless of the source.

“More security, keeping a closer watch on things are things I will do and urge other growers to do,” he concludes.

The felony sabotage case is currently under investigation by local and state authorities. Gross says his main concern now is letting his customers know that none of the produce he sells at his family store was contaminated in any way.