Eighty acres and a crop circle

Rockville farmer Larry Balestra got more than he bargained for this harvest

Rockville could have “the most significant crop circle” in America or just another tourist curiosity.

Rockville could have “the most significant crop circle” in America or just another tourist curiosity.

Photo By David A. Kulczyk

Early in the morning on Saturday, June 28, farmer Larry Balestra noticed that his 80-acre wheat field had been damaged overnight.

“When I first walked out there—now, of course, it’s been trampled—but it was all laid out, all the circles in the same direction. It was too perfect. If humans did it, then it was well-planned.”

A crop circle about as long as a football field had appeared in the corner of Balestra’s 80-acre Rockville wheat field. From the air, the 14 linked circles resembled an abstract stickman of Mickey Mouse standing on a ball. The pattern in the waist-high and ready-for-harvest wheat lay entirely in a clockwise direction and at a 90-degree angle about an inch from the ground. Little patches of morning glory poked through the bent wheat, apparently unharmed. The ground was rock-hard and cracked.

Tucked into the beautiful Suisun Valley of Solano County, Rockville is a quiet little town, although it’s only a couple miles from hectic I-80 traffic and Travis Air Force Base. Fruit stands line Old Highway 40 as it winds through the edge of the valley to the one-stoplight town. Nothing too exciting happens there.

Balestra’s field sits on the southwest side of the stoplight and about an eighth of a mile down Suisun Valley Road. Last week, five days after the circles appeared, about a dozen people were walking around inside them, and a dozen more were coming and going. Some of them were curious locals on their lunch breaks, and others were UFO devotees. But right in the center of the phenomenon was a group of people wearing sensible headgear and carrying clipboards and cameras.

Ruben Uriarte has been to more than 100 crop circles, most of them in England within the last seven years. He is a member of Crop Circle Phenomenon Research International and the Mutual UFO Network, and he talks and looks like a scientist. He and a handful of volunteer researchers were in Balestra’s field taking measurements and collecting samples of small clumps of wheat every 100 feet. They were following a protocol that was developed in England, where 90 percent of crop circles have been recorded.

“Here in the United States, crop circles are rare,” said Uriarte. “They occur mostly in Oregon, the Midwest and Canada. I was involved in an investigation in Santa Rosa in 1995, but that was on the side of a hill and an equilateral triangle with three circles. The fact that this is right here in a wheat field, it is quite interesting.”

Still, Uriarte and the other researchers are skeptical. Pranks are a common fact the crop-circle researchers have to deal with. (In fact, as this issue goes to press, a second crop circle has been discovered a half mile south of the Rockville formation. Considerably less precise than the original, it appears to be the work of either copycat pranksters or clumsier aliens.)

“There are people out there that can duplicate good spokes formations,” said Uriarte, “but the problem with that is that it skews the research and attracts attention.”

Attention is something crop-circle researchers don’t like. The media is famous for reporting circles with humor, often presenting the researchers and looky-loos as oddballs.

“The newscast will do a story, pooh-pooh it and make a joke about it because they’ll associate it with the movie Signs and then come up with typical alien stories,” explained Uriarte. “The fact of the matter is that some of these formations have very strange energies, the soil composition has changed, and the molecular structure has also changed. If we can find out about this, we might have something, if not it’s just another tourist curiosity.”

Creating a crop circle so close to a fairly busy highway, homes and businesses without being noticed would be a problem for hoaxers. The main intersection of Rockville is a couple hundred yards away, with a lively tavern, restaurant, convenience store and gas station on the corners.

“We estimate that [creating the crop circles as a hoax] would have taken four people at least three or four hours to do this,” said Steve Moreno, the initial investigator. “The window of time was from 12 to 6 that they could have done it. There’s traffic, and the people here know the farmer and the field. That restaurant over there was well-occupied until about midnight, so that narrows it down that, more than likely, it isn’t a hoax.”

The Rockville circles are unique. The geometric symmetry is very complex for North American crop circles, and they also usually happen earlier in the season, when the plants are still green. Moreno is documenting the Rockville crop circles—interviewing witnesses and neighbors, arranging a lab to have tests done and arranging an airplane to do a flyover photo shoot to analyze the circles’ geometric symmetry.

Balestra agreed to hold off on harvesting so the paranormal investigators could document the site. It had already been severely contaminated by people, some on a pilgrimage, who had been stomping all over the site since the circles appeared. “This may be the most significant crop circle that has occurred in North America,” said Moreno. “Most of them are very simple.”

Vallejo native Ted Roe studies unidentified aerial phenomena. He seemed to hope that the crop circles were a prank. On his hands and knees, he poked at the base of some flattened wheat, pointing out that the stems seemed to be bent and not popped at the bottom nodes like in other documented crop circles. The theory is that heat generated by whatever produces real crop circles creates a steam pocket in the last node from the ground, causing them to flatten.

“My first instinct is that this isn’t real,” said Roe. “But at the same time, it is true to the patterns. The alignment is north-south, which is something that everybody looks for, and we haven’t found a central point where you can start with the first circle to make the rest of the circles.”

He looked at more stems and found some to be broken right at the nodes. There was a long silence.

“I don’t know,” said Roe. “I’m still thinking that it is a manufactured circle.”

Crop circles capture people’s imagination, even if it is possible that somebody manufactured them. Last week, there were dozens of people milling about the field and nearby parking lots. Some, like New Orleans native Connie Pierson, who was visiting her son in Sacramento, saw it as a sign.

“I think that this is absolutely real,” said Pierson. “I have a whole crop-circle/alien connection, so it’s like being here from New Orleans at this particular time is obviously a message.”

Pierson saw her first UFO in Mississippi when she was 10 years old. She has seen many more since then all over America, she said.

“My brother is in the Air Force, and he leaks information occasionally, but we won’t say his name,” said Pierson, laughing.

While frightened-looking children wandered close to their mothers, an astonished Asian woman walked up and said in broken English that this was the most exciting thing that she had ever seen.

Pat Kavanagh lives across the street from the field. Although he wasn’t home on the Friday night the circles were made, the young teenager noticed that his pet Chihuahua was acting strange a few days before the incident.

“All last week prior to this happening,” said Kavanagh, “we didn’t think anything of it, but our dogs at nighttime, around 10 or 11 o’clock, they would just bark uncontrollably like they had a siren up to their ears.”

Kavanagh’s brother Chuck Marino was home, and he did notice one thing different late at night on June 27.

“On Friday night around 11:30,” said Marino, “me and my girlfriend went to the store, but it was closed. So, then we drove back up, and right there in the middle of the field, where the center of the circle would be, we saw a light. It was like a single headlight. It didn’t move or anything. It just stayed there at about the level of the wheat. I didn’t think nothing of it. I saw it for about 20 seconds when I was at the stoplight.”

Throughout the early morning hours, Marino and his girlfriend went outside to smoke cigarettes. It is very quiet on Suisun Valley Road at night. If something was stirring out in the fields, Marino said, they would have heard it.

“Me and my girlfriend came outside a couple of times before 3 to have cigarettes, and we didn’t see or hear any noise at all,” said Marino. “We’ve lived here for five years, and any time there’s people out there doing something in the fields, we hear it. It was dark out here. There was no one driving out here, so you could hear anything, and I didn’t hear one thing out there all night.”

In the middle of last week, Balestra stood outside of his fruit market, Larry’s Produce, about a mile down Suisun Valley Road from the crop circles. The parking lot was full of locals buying fresh produce. Longtime customers waved to him and commented about his field, which, since the circles appeared, has been the biggest attraction in the valley. Balestra, who started farming in 1986 after he graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, has been handling the media attention well. “At first, I was just overwhelmed,” he said. “But now, it’s kind of steady and controllable.”

At that time, the field was ready to be harvested; in fact, the crop circles are no longer there. In a couple months, the researchers will have the lab results. But no matter what the outcome, people are going to remember what happened in this wheat field for a long time.