Federal investigators have unraveled a scheme among dozens of insurance agents, claims adjusters, brokers and farmers in eastern North Carolina to steal at least $100 million from the government-backed program that insures crops, The Associated Press reports.

Forty-one defendants have either pleaded guilty or reached plea agreements after profiting from false insurance claims for losses of tobacco, soybeans, wheat and corn. Often, the article says, crops weren’t damaged, and farmers used aliases to sell their written-off harvests for cash.

Prosecutors compared the case to busting a drug cartel – federal investigators used a confidential informant to ensnare a key participant in the fraud, who then agreed to implicate others, AP reports.

The federal crop insurance program was created to keep farmers from going bankrupt in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and 2012’s payouts topped $15.6 billion – a figure that is still growing as claims are filed.

According to AP: “USDA requires tobacco growers to take out crop insurance ahead of the growing season, but payment on those policies is not due until after the harvest. If the crop is damaged by bad weather or leaf-munching bugs, the farmer is paid the difference between the value of his diminished harvest and the amount of the policy.

“According to (crop insurance agent and alleged fraudster Robert Carl Stokes') indictment, the insurance agent recruited farmers to take out large policies and then claim large losses, even as they produced bumper crops. Stokes helped the farmers keep the true value of their harvests secret by selling ‘hidden’ tobacco through warehouse operators in on the scheme, who agreed to write checks to false recipients to help obscure who was really getting the money.

“Stokes would then cash the checks for the farmers, keeping a percentage. Stokes would also keep a share of the payout from the government-backed insurance settlement, according to prosecutors.

“Charged with 14 felony counts, Stokes pleaded guilty in 2011 to two counts of conspiring to make false statements and to commit money laundering and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. He also agreed to pay more than $16.5 million in court-ordered restitution.”