Reasonably priced technology and a dose of common sense can go a long way toward keeping your property safe.

City dwellers tend to idealize life in the country, imagining that it's something like life on TV's Mayberry RFD. In reality, though, some of the very qualities that make rural life so desirable - solitude and trust in people, to name two - are key reasons why rural crime is thriving in America.

Farmers often park their tractors overnight in the field, but that's an open invitation to a thief to steal parts, if not the tractor itself, says Brent Johnson, Renville (ND) County Sheriff. "We've also had woodwork and antiques stolen out of abandoned farmsteads," he says. "And on working farms, the main targets are grain, vehicles and liquid anhydrous ammonia." The anhydrous, he adds, is used to manufacture methamphetamine, the most widely abused hard drug in the United States.

"Just because we live in a rural area doesn't mean we can't be victimized," Johnson says. "Any crime that occurs in the city, we see on the farm." And even if a crime in process is detected, he says, "our county has a 45-mile stretch from top to bottom and a lot of times there's just one law enforcement officer on duty. Response time could be 30 minutes."

Tempting targets. Targets of theft are nearly as varied as agriculture enterprises throughout the country. Scofflaws help themselves to everything from anhydrous in North Dakota to tractors in Texas and catfish in Mississippi.

Yes, catfish. According to statistics from the Mississippi Agriculture and Livestock Theft Bureau, that state's producers have lost nearly $37,000 worth of their fish to theft over the last seven years. All told, thieves have cost Mississippi farmers a total of nearly $10 million during that same time period. Besides catfish, targets include timber, chemicals, cattle, horses and pigs. But farm equipment, valued at almost $3 million, ranks first in losses.

Farm tools and small equipment are prime targets because they're easily hidden and transported, "and they can be turned over for cash quickly," notes Leonard Buresh, Nebraska Farm Bureau Insurance Company. "Around here, thieves take tools out of trucks parked at the edge of fields or sitting unlocked on the farm. But mostly they concentrate on shops or machine sheds."

Part of the challenge for crime victims filing claims is that the burden of proof is on them. "A lot of time, they've had these tools for 10 or 20 years," Buresh explains. "After they're gone, it's hard to prove they existed. That's why we encourage people to use digital or video cameras to film their homes, equipment and tools, then store the pictures or tape in a safety deposit box. Should a theft occur, the proof is there."

Say technology to crime. Because surveillance equipment, alarm systems and antitheft devices have become increasingly sophisticated and affordable, rural property owners now have a variety of products from which to choose.

Bill Brenner of Continental Farms in Peotone, IL, aims four small wireless video cameras at key areas of his 80- x 120-ft. equipment shed. The cameras are programmed to record five-second increments, and the resulting tape is reviewed periodically on the system's VCR.

These systems can be easily installed, says Richard Prato, YouDoIt Home Security & Surveillance Systems, Pembroke Pines, FL. "Installation alone can account for upwards of 60% of the total cost of other video surveillance systems. Farmers can save a good deal of money by doing the installation themselves," he says.

Brenner calls his YouDoIt system a good investment. "We have pieces of farm equipment costing $200,000 apiece sitting in that building," he says. "The $1,600 we have invested in the cameras and VCR is a small price to pay for security. When we had a sophisticated key system, there was damage when people tried to break in. Now we have a visual record of the building's two main access doors and of who comes up the driveway."

For more information, contact YouDoIt Home Security & Surveillance Systems, Dept. FIN, 18331 Pines Blvd., PMB 131, Pembroke Pines, FL 33029, 800/632-7856, www.youdoitsecurity.com.

Farmers opting for a Drive-Alert alarm system, made by Mier Products, Kokomo, IN, know when someone's coming up the driveway. Or that there's someone sniffing around the gas tanks, farm machine sheds, barns or other buildings. Andy Quam, an Elk Point, SD, dealer, says his most popular option is a system that detects both people and vehicles.

"The system's wireless transmitter sends an invisible beam 80 to 100 ft.," Quam explains. "When the beam is broken, the transmitter sends a signal that can turn on lights indoors or out, phone friends or neighbors if you're not home, sound an alarm outside or just ring a bell in the house. And if the alarm goes off at 2:00 in the morning, you know it sure isn't the UPS man."

For more information, contact Mier Products, Dept. FIN, 1500 N. Ann St., Kokomo, IN 46901, 800/473-0213, www.mierproducts.com.

To make sure tractors, trucks, cars, motor homes and boats stay put, Vince Raviele, Richmond, TX, recommends the Ravelco Anti-Theft Device he invented. Sold for less than $150, the quarter-sized device is installed in an easily accessible place on or under a vehicle's dashboard. Wires from the rear of the device go through to the engine compartment where all the connections are made; a steel cable protects the wires. A 16-pin plug carried on your key chain makes all the electronic connections. When the plug is removed from the device, the vehicle cannot be started.

"It fits gas or diesel engines with either electronic or conventional ignitions," Raviele explains. "It absolutely can't be hot-wired."

Indeed, he says proudly, since the device's introduction in 1976, no vehicle equipped with one has been stolen.

Raviele says many Texas farmers have put these easily installed devices on their tractors and other vehicles. He says, "When you're driving through Texas, you pass hundreds of thousands of remote acres. And then you come upon a tractor sitting by the side of the road. Criminals pull up with flatbed trailers and just load 'em up. Put one of these on the tractor, and there's nothing they can do to get it started."

For more information, contact Ravelco Anti-Theft Device, Dept. FIN, 6920 Oak Knoll Dr., Richmond, TX 77469-8660, 281/341-6222, www.ravelco.com.

The National Crime Prevention Council urges rural residents to take these commonsense steps to safeguard their property.

Homestead Make sure the outside doors of your house and outbuildings are solid wood or metal and have dead bolts. Then use the locks.

Lock and secure sliding doors and windows.

Thieves hate lights. Keep the house, driveway, barns and other buildings well-lit.

Prune shrubbery that hides doors, windows, lights and would-be burglars.

Mark tools, guns and equipment with a permanent identification number such as your driver's license or Social Security number. Work with law enforcement to determine the best methods of identification, and make it a community project.

Keep storage and shop areas neat and well-organized so you will notice any theft immediately. This also warns potential thieves that you are watchful.

Equipment and livestock Tattoo livestock and take regular counts of them.

Secure gas pumps and tanks, storage bins and grain elevators with sturdy padlocks or dead bolts.

Keep small equipment - mowers, bikes, snowmobiles, ATVs - in a locked building.

Keep guns locked and unloaded in a secure place.

Never leave keys in vehicles or farm equipment.

Always lock trucks and other vehicles when not in use. And don't leave tools in the open back of a pickup truck or in an unsecured truck bed toolbox.

Avoid leaving major pieces of equipment in fields overnight. If you must, disable them by removing the rotor, distributor or battery.

Crops Store harvested crops in protected and locked locations.

Consider marking grain, hay or similar crops with nontoxic confetti that storage or processing facilities can easily remove.

Neighboring farms Enlist others and start a neighborhood or farm watch group. Involve all ages, and work with law enforcement. Use CB radios or cellular phones to patrol and report suspicious activities to the sheriff or police.

When you go away, stop delivery of your mail and newspapers or ask a neighbor to pick them up. You want to create the illusion that someone's home. Have neighbors check your property and return the favor when they leave.