Searching for an iPhone in a haystack: During farm’s festival, all sorts of stuff gets lost


Items that have been lost at Butler's Orchard are seen on Wednesday in Germantown. The belongings are collected and logged electronically. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A bucolic family day at the pumpkin festival — an autumn ritual for thousands in the Washington region — went sour the moment Chonte Fields reached into her pocket for her phone and felt that it was gone.

The enormity of the challenge slowly dawned on Fields: She was looking for an iPhone in a haystack.

Specifically, her phone could have been buried under hundreds of pounds of straw on one of 10 hay wagons circulating through Butler’s Orchard, a 300-acre farm. Or entombed in the hayloft, filled hip-high with spongy layers of straw. Or tucked away in the Magic Maze, 56 bales of straw covered by a tarp to make sure it’s extra dark and impossible to see your feet, let alone a missing phone.

“The straw, it just eats stuff,” said Ben Butler, 24, whose grandparents founded the farm, a Germantown institution that features a produce market, pick-your-own fruits and the annual pumpkin festival. “You’re sitting in straw, playing with your kids, rolling around, you kind of lose track. In a flash, keys slip out of a pocket or a cellphone disappears. It’s not like a playground, where you can just go back and find it where you left it. Especially with the number of people in the barn and on the hayrides, things get tossed around and moved around.”

In a highly wired region in a nation where 56 percent of adults own smartphones, many who come to the farm to unwind in the country bring along their iPhones or Androids. And they lose them, often.

Some, consumed in the frolic of a family day off, lose more important things.

Gordon Hain’s white-gold wedding band slipped off his finger Sunday as he was brushing straw from his son’s hair in the hayloft.

“It just slid off my finger and disappeared into the hay,” said Hain, 31, of Silver Spring. “Even knowing where it landed, I just couldn’t find it. All the little bits of hay confuse the eye and it’s hard to focus on a particular item, especially something as small as a ring. There was no contrast between it and the hay.”

He and his family were on hands and knees in the hayloft for about a half-hour, digging frantically and kicking up a cloud of dust, to no avail.

“We were covered head to toe in hay by the time we walked out of there,” said Hain, who had never taken off his ring since his wedding six years ago. “I felt absolute numbness. Shock, really.”

To figure out the likelihood of finding something in a haystack by poking around with a long, thin stick, take the average cross-sectional area of the missing item and divide it by the area of the haystack, said Ian Stewart, a British mathematician and the author of “How to Cut a Cake and Other Mathematical Conundrums.”

In other words, good luck.

So many things disappear under all that hay at Butler’s, which has been running its pumpkin festival for 33 years, that the farm computerized its lost-and-found system to speed connections between people and possessions.

“Bags of stuff come in each day,” said Karlene Southard, the office manager and commander of the lost-and-found operation. At her feet was the haul from the two days: a gray knit bunny hat, a left-handed red mitten coated in straw, an adult-size Batman beanie, a pink costume cowboy hat, a child’s white sweater jacket, a pair of aviator sunglasses, a child’s left-handed knit glove, a Sony camera, a baby bottle, a teething ring, a Honda key, a green water bottle, an empty Ray-Ban sunglasses case. Three drawers in a metal filing cabinet were brimming with more stuff, and a corner was filled with a couple of cardboard boxes full of items.

Someone lost a red lanyard weighed down by a keyless entry remote for a car and three ignition keys. “You have to wonder how he got home,” Southard said.

Anything found this year and not claimed by Christmas Eve will be donated to charities, she said.

On Wednesday, 234 items were logged into the database.

One was a small wallet, still containing money, that belonged to Elijah Spiller, 13, of Germantown. His mother, Dawn, came to the farm Wednesday to pick it up and was smiling from ear to ear. “He was so upset that he lost it,” she said. “He’s going to be so happy to get it back.”

Hain was not content to wait for serendipity. The loss of his wedding ring cast a pall over his life. “It taints everything else that goes on,” he said. “You’re always thinking about it. I just had to find it.”

He returned to Butler’s on Monday morning with determination and a rented metal detector.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he said. “You’re sweeping it back and forth the way you see it on television and stuff. You hear a beep and start digging.”

He found a penny. And a set of keys. And a Matchbox toy car.

Then, Hain struck gold.

“All of a sudden there was a beep and I started digging, moving some straw away, and I saw this shimmer,” Hain said. “I started shaking. Oh, my goodness! I found it. I just sat there for a few minutes. I just had to come to terms with the fact that I found it.”

Fields, whose white iPhone adorned with a Snow White sticker disappeared into the golden strands, said the despair she felt sank to her gut.

“It’s kind of terrible,” she said. “My whole life can be accessed from my cellphone: my Facebook account, my Amazon account with a link to my Visa card, pictures of my daughter.”

Fields used that same technology to find her phone. When she got home from the farm, she logged onto her computer and launched the Find My iPhone application. She watched as GPS traced her phone to Butler’s. It was still there, somewhere on the farm. But it was moving.

Her fiance was convinced that someone had taken it. “You’ll never see it again,” he told her.

When Fields showed up at the farm Monday morning, she and Ben Butler used the app to trace the phone again. It was still on the farm and still on the move.

“You could see the little green dot slowly moving along the path,” Fields said. They realized it was on a wagon full of children on a school field trip.

“The tractor pulled up, and Ben climbed on,” she said. “By the time all of the little kids had gotten off, he found the phone and held it up in the air. I screamed. And everyone clapped.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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