Ringgold County is the latest rural Iowa community to fall victim to a large scale marijuana growing operation.
Just a few months ago an abandoned large scale marijuana operation was discovered in Ringgold County, which is about 100 miles from Des Moines.
Residents and local officials say they’re shocked this could happen under their noses.
Just off an old dirt road in Ringgold County, hidden among the woods and cornfields an illegal cash crop has taken root.
“This is very serious, the people doing this spend a lot of time and money and energy trying to find locations in the middle of nowhere,” says Ringgold County Sheriff Mike Sobotka.
“Rather than having to bring marijuana across the Southwest border they`re bringing growers up here to the Midwest,” says Kevin Winker with the Division of Narcotics part of the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
The land owner who didn’t want to be identified said he was shocked when he found out, “I felt stupid, how could this go on, on my own land and I don`t know what`s going on.”
The subtle signs started showing up last Spring, but the thought of a major marijuana grow operation never crossed the land owner`s mind.
“While hunting last year I noticed some water pipe laying on the ground and thought it seemed strange but just assumed it was from the past farmer watering his cattle or something like that,” says the land owner.
The land owner started putting the pieces together in August, but even when the Sheriff called he still didn`t think it was possible.
‘They wanted to have permission to go on my land and look for some things and I asked them what for and they and they thought maybe there was a drug plantation there. I thought there was no way that`s on my land I know what`s going on,” says the land owner.
There was good reason he didn`t know what was going on.
“They`ll shave the trees up 15 to 20 feet to allow more light down to the plants but still keep the canopy above, so they`re coming in and destroying land and they`re doing it in such a way that it`s out of sight from the general public,” says Winker.
The land owner who used the land for hunting says he came close to running into the growers.
“I have deer stands not 50 yards away from it and the first plant probably wasn`t 25 yards off a main gravel road, and I had no clue.”
But it isn`t out of sight from the air.
When looking at a Google Earth image you can see lots of black dots which are hundreds of marijuana plants and a trail carved into the brush. A previous photo aerial photo shows just a wooded area.
When the Ringgold County Sheriff`s Office moved in the site was already abandoned, but signs of the marijuana operation were everywhere.
For an estimated six months the growers lived out of a camouflaged tent and used a propane grill for cooking.
They were also equipped with fertilizer, tools, and kept extensive notes on the plants they grew.
“Someone went to a lot of work to hide it and to run it that far,” says the land owner.
The work that went into the operation was just as extensive.
On top of digging a hole for each of the more than 500 plants, the growers also dug several large pits and ran an irrigation line over a mile to a nearby pond.
The growers were also prepared to defend their crop.
“I would say it`s dangerous, they`ve got knives stuck in trees, they`ve got pick axes and they`re going to see you long before you see them,” says Sheriff Sobotka.
The land owner says he was close to where the growers had set up camp.
“It`s just a scary thought, thinking what if you happened upon this when they were there,” says the land owner.
The Sheriff says it`s a real possibility as marijuana growers increasingly take their chances on private land.
“If you see these water lines, if you see these pits, if you see abandoned campsites, you get out of there and call local law enforcement,” says Sheriff Sobotka.
The land owner says it’s changed how he views his land, “I think we`re more aware, if something doesn`t look right or feel right, we don`t go investigate it.”
The reality of the drug trade is setting in, in Ringgold County giving land owners a new danger to watch out for.
“The most thing you were ever worried about were trespassers or poachers,” says the land owner.
And costing them their sense of security.
“We trust people are going to do what they normally do and this kind of stuff doesn`t happen but it`s not that way anymore,” says the land owner.
Authorities say growers usually target isolated wooded areas on the outskirts of farm land or in covered hunting grounds.
The marijuana growing season in Iowa runs from late April through September.
Narcotics Agents says marijuana grown in Iowa is likely distributed throughout Iowa and across the Midwest.
Narcotics agents say it was a string of grows in Taylor, Worth and Decatur Counties that led them to the Ringgold operation.
The men responsible for those three grows have been arrested and are in prison.
The Division of Narcotics Enforcement has a toll free hotline for people to call if they suspect a marijuana grow in their area, 1 800 532 0052. You can remain anonymous.
Watch Part I here.