Last time Ernest and Judith Hendry checked, about 10,000 tomatoes were ripening on vines at their 20-acre North Arlington farm, somewhere between the sunflowers and the bell peppers.

But on the stalks where doorknob-sized vegetables reddened just three weeks ago, there is now only a profusion of leafy green stems.

"The garden was wiped clean of every tomato," said Judith Hendry, 45. "Every Beefsteak, every Marglobe, every Better Boy is gone."

The Hendrys have dubbed it the "Missing Tomatoes Caper," and say they are not sure whether the tomato-napper struck in the dead of night, or while they were out on errands.

What they do know is that a two-acre swath of their Red Hill Farm was picked clean of its tomatoes sometime between the end of July and the 10th of August.

By way of explaining why the crime was not discovered sooner, Ernest Hendry said he and his wife are "not always in that part of the garden . . . . There are lot of other crops that grow here, and we could even have been on another part of the farm when the thief struck."

Red Hill Farm, the only remaining working farm in Arlington, is on the site of an old Civil War fort. In addition to the tomato acreage, there are chickens and a prize-winning rooster; 10,000 pounds of potatoes; flowers that won the Hendrys prizes at the county fair; and a bounty of vegetables, from jalapeno peppers to spaghetti squash.

The land has been in the Hendry family since 1927, but this is only the second year that the Hendrys have farmed it commercially, and they had hoped to break even for the first time.

The tomatoes, they said, were to have been their bread and butter.

"That was our most marketable crop," Judith Henry said. "When people came by, they were always asking if we had tomatoes."

Arlington police estimate the worth of the crop at $3,200 -- the value of 10,000 not-quite-ripe tomatoes -- making the heist Arlington's largest ever of agricultural products and qualifying it as grand larceny, which is punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine in Virginia.

But police investigators question the estimate. "We're checking with legal experts to see if we aren't really talking about the value of the seed that went into the ground," said Arlington police spokesman Tom Bell. In that case the value would be no more than $10, he said.

The Hendrys contend, however, that the tomatoes ought to be valued at their worth when harvested, or as much as $10,000. Earlier this season they sold their first tomatoes for about 99 cents a pound, they said.

They have little hope of recovering the stolen property.

"Where do you look for fingerprints on something that's not there anymore?" Judith Hendry asked. "And by now, if there were footprints they've gotten all mixed up with ours."

They also doubt their tomatoes, even if recovered, are in any condition to sell.

"We're just hoping that the fact that this crime is being investigated serves as a deterrent for whoever did it trying to do the same thing again."

For this year's tomato harvest the Hendrys said, there remains only the smallest of consolations: The cherry tomatoes were left behind.