Farmers and deputies work to deter theft


Issue Date: June 27, 2018
By Christine Souza
Tulare County Sheriff’s Office Agricultural Crimes Unit detective John Nicholson applies Smartwater, a marking technology, to a tractor at a citrus farm in Visalia. Farmers are encouraged to mark property with identifiers so law enforcement can locate owners of stolen property that has been recovered.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
Peter Alvitre, managing partner of California Clementines, a citrus company in Visalia, says he marks property using the Owner-Applied Number system and Smartwater technology. It is important to take steps to prevent crime, he says, because stolen equipment could cause delays and affect the crop.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

It's a busy time on the farm, as farmers harvest crops, apply materials and prepare ground for planting. But the tools farmers need to do the work of agriculture—including large equipment such as tractors, implements and other property—are often targeted by thieves, creating a headache and added cost for growers.

"For tractors and large equipment, a lot of times they are crimes of opportunity," said Tulare County Sheriff's Sgt. Chad Rhyman of the Agricultural Crimes Unit. "A lot of times, tractors are left out in the middle of fields or orchards. Once the crew gets off work, they leave the tractor and other equipment on site—and the next morning they come back and the tractor, quad or other equipment is gone."

Tulare County citrus grower Peter Alvitre, managing partner of California Clementines, has experienced theft. He said a sudden loss of large equipment means "you are out a substantial investment."

"A theft can delay cultural activities, which can substantially impact you if you are trying to get things planted, or if the loss of that tractor delays a spray, then you can sustain substantial damage from pests," Alvitre said. "If you are spending days lining up a rental, getting it delivered or picking it up, then you are not getting that crop harvested in a timely fashion."

Agricultural crime units in Tulare and Kern counties reported thefts of thousands of dollars of agricultural equipment this month, including tractors, all-terrain vehicles, utility trailers, farm implements and more. In Tulare County this year, farmers and ranchers have reported approximately $440,000 in heavy equipment theft; of that, $275,000 worth of stolen equipment has been recovered, Rhyman said.

Kern County farmer Leah Volkoff of Volkoff Family Farms in Shafter said rural crime has cost the family and its insurance company several hundred thousand dollars, including to replace stolen equipment, a pickup truck, agricultural chemicals and dozens of batteries from equipment.

"We weld on locks over batteries and motors, which helps, but that makes them harder to service and work on," Volkoff said. "We end up having trouble when, despite all of the locks and welded metal to hinder theft, people still try to steal the stuff, and we end up with tractors torn up when people try to chain the equipment to their vehicles and pull stuff off. It's really a big problem."

Senior Deputy Casey Brunsell of the Kern County Sheriff's Rural Crime Investigation Unit describes the county's rural-crime problems as "significant," and adds, "We want to work in partnership with the affected businesses to address the problems."

"The message we always want to get out is: Talk to your neighbors, talk to your friends, talk about what's going on and talk to law enforcement," said Brunsell, president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force.

Deputies recommend farmers and ranchers make it as difficult as possible for thieves to steal agricultural property.

"Farmers who have been victims of thefts multiple times, figure out a new way to do things, or create a new measure of security, either by hiring a private security company or having GPS or a LoJack (tracking) device installed," Rhyman said. "In one case, a tractor was stolen and the farmer said, 'I have GPS on it,' so we just went and got it from its location."

With his citrus harvest complete, Alvitre said, time spent on equipment maintenance is a good time to address crime-prevention measures, including marking equipment with an identifier such as an Owner-Applied Number so when stolen property is recovered, it can be returned to the farm.

In addition to OAN, Alvitre is applying Smartwater, a chemically coded, colorless liquid that can be applied as an identifier to equipment and property. The liquid fluoresces under ultraviolet light and transfers onto skin and clothing. Signage for the farm and decals for equipment remind would-be thieves that the property is protected by the technology.

Deputies in some California counties are actively promoting the use of Smartwater, noting that it serves as a secondary identifier if thieves grind off identification and OAN numbers, making it more difficult to identify the true owner of a piece of equipment.

In addition to use of a marking system, rural crime detectives suggest the following crime-prevention measures:

  • Remove keys from equipment when not in use; remove the battery, battery cable or fuses if leaving equipment unsecured; or else secure equipment behind a locked gate or inside of a shop.
  • Hide ATVs, quads or utility vehicles inside a locked garage, shop or large storage container, so they are not as visible.
  • Report crimes as they happen. Many counties now have online reporting systems, through which reports can be issued a case number and assigned to detectives. For crimes with evidence, have a detective arrive and process evidence such as fingerprints, shoe tracks or vehicle tracks.
  • Maintain a relationship with the local sheriff's department and its agricultural crime unit detectives, and be aware of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, which strives to make rural communities safer.

The task force website contains more information about rural crime prevention: www.crcptf.org.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.