Japan's fruit bandits have struck in northern Japan for the first time this year, hauling away a prize crop of cherries just hours before they were to be harvested. 'This is the first time we have had a crop stolen in our town,' said Keiko Watanabe, a spokeswoman for Nagai city in the northwestern Yamagata prefecture. 'Police are investigating and there is talk of patrols to protect other orchards.' About 100kg of top-quality cherries were plundered from an orchard between Saturday evening and Sunday. The farmer - who police are refusing to name - put the value of his missing crop at 350,000 yen ($24,880). Organised fruit bandits have been a blight on farmers' livelihoods since the summer of 2003, with teams stripping tonnes of fruit in pick-and-run raids across northern Japan from early June. The thieves made clean getaways, but incidents tailed off as farmers teamed up to drive around their orchards after sunset. With June the summer gift-giving season, Yamagata's cherries are in demand. With their short shelf lives, they are likely to have been sold on the black market. The thieves also are diversifying. Just a week ago, a farmer had a crop of watermelons worth 150,000 yen stolen from a greenhouse. Police have promised to join farmers on patrols to protect the best of this season's ripening crops.