Mobile technology bolsters efforts to fight rural crime


Issue Date: August 18, 2010
By Christine Souza

Thanks to the use of social networking communication that is inexpensive and easy to use, farmers and sheriff's deputies are enhancing rural crime-prevention efforts by exchanging tips, suspect information and photos instantly, which can lead to the quick recovery of property and arrests. E-mails and text messages exchanged among farmers and ranchers, county Farm Bureaus, rural residents and law enforcement agencies have added a new dimension to local farm watch programs.

"Shrinking sheriff's department budgets and fewer deputies on patrol makes it even more important that farmers and ranchers work with their neighbors to watch out for one another and report anything suspicious," said Danielle Rau, California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Rural Crime Prevention. "Many communities are taking advantage of farm watch programs and the partnerships of local law enforcement with county Farm Bureaus allow deputies and growers to share information almost instantly."

One successful program is the Ventura County Sheriff Farm Watch program created by Capt. Tim Hagel of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, who also happens to be a farmer and Farm Bureau member. Hagel started the program in 2008, when metal thefts were rampant throughout the county and frustrated farmers and deputies wanted to find a way to catch thieves while working with limited resources. The Farm Watch program was formed and in the summer of that same year, farm-related crime dropped by 24 percent from the previous year.

"Our department was looking for non-traditional ways to counter the surge of agricultural thefts that ravaged farmers and ranchers between 2007 and 2009. When the problem of metal theft was at its peak in 2008, it was common for deputies to respond to local farmers or ranchers who had thousands of dollars worth of irrigation devices stolen," Hagel said. "The program has developed into a successful partnership that includes about 500 farms, ranches, nurseries, oilfields, supply houses and agricultural support organizations."

Through Ventura's program, farmers receive farm watch alerts, which are real-time notifications of crimes happening in the county, photos of recovered property, suspicious-vehicle information and much more to help in solving rural crimes. Recipients also receive the department's e-mail newsletter that includes reports of rural crime activity, crime prevention tips and a crime occurrence map.

"The Farm Watch alert is like our own version of Twitter. The Farm Watch alert can be launched right from my BlackBerry and from the scenes of incidents," Hagel said. "Last year, we were out on wildfires affecting huge rural agricultural areas and the incident commander said, ‘Could you let all of the farmers know to turn on their irrigation systems because we think the fire is going to head that way.' We put that out right away to 500 different farmers and ranchers.

"It is amazing how many farmers and ranchers carry BlackBerrys and I-Phones. They may not be that good at texting, but they all receive the alerts," Hagel said.

Ventura County farmer Mark Gentry, who grows avocados, citrus fruit and row crops in Bardsdale, said he and his fellow farmers feel a renewed sense of security now that the farm watch program is in place.

"The Ventura Farm Watch program offers a strong sense of security in the communities with many people who are normally living by themselves. We now have a protective force nearby with the word out that this is a workable and a well-organized set-up, thanks to Tim and his deputies," Gentry said.

Gentry has been struck by thieves a number of times, including one time when the farm watch program came to his aid while he and his wife were out of town.

"A guy who is familiar with my ranch saw these varmints picking stuff and knew it was strange because it was about 11 o'clock on a Sunday. He didn't speak a lot of English, but he was aware of farm watch and knew the number to call," Gentry said. "Tim orchestrated a quick response and the varmints were caught in Piru with a trunkload of vegetables and avocados."

Having been a theft victim several times, Gentry said the farm watch system has the rural communities in Ventura County "energized," to report crimes.

"These varmints have welders and all kinds of ways to break into our barns and buildings that have safety and security locks, so we're always on the alert. Anything that looks suspicious is reported; not reporting was the old days," Gentry said. "We've got the eyes and ears of the community helping and you have Tim with a system that works quite well. So we're so grateful for him for setting up this program."

Farm Bureau of Ventura County Chief Executive Officer John Krist said that the Ventura Farm Watch program has helped with apprehension of people either in the act or shortly afterward.

"If somebody sees a dirty white pickup speeding away from the orchard and they took some avocados, that description can be broadcast instantly by e-mail or cell phone and all of a sudden you have a lot of eyes looking for that truck," Krist said. "It is great information sharing."

The concept of a farm or neighborhood watch has also gained in popularity in Central Valley counties that experience high levels of rural crime.

In San Joaquin County, the Farm Bureau has long had a partnership with the County Sheriff's Department's Rural Crime Task Force to work on crime prevention. Like what is happening in Ventura, San Joaquin County farmers have e-mail access to their sheriff's department to report crimes and communicate information between the deputies and farmers. Farm Bureaus in San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced use their FARM TEAM program to communicate rural crime alerts.

"We run FARM TEAM San Joaquin, a kind of an all-purpose electronic system we use to send our rural crime alerts. If theft or trespassing instances occur, we're able to communicate that information out electronically right away," said Katie Patterson, San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation program director. "We're finding that more of our members are carrying devices that get that e-mail. So more eyes and more ears are helping us in our rural crimes department. We only have a few detectives that are at our disposal and every little bit that we can do to help the sheriff helps us be more successful."

Information sent to farmers is gathered from various sources including from the Barmont Neighborhood Watch, which began in 2006 and encompasses 400 square miles in Stanislaus and Merced counties.

"We use FARM TEAM as part of our communications source. We have 400 (Barmont Neighborhood Watch) signs out and it has a tremendous effect. Our signage is so good, our patrolling is so heavy and our communication with the computer system is so good that I think people would prefer to go somewhere else," said Denair farmer Don Morelli, who chairs the Barmont Neighborhood Watch committee. "You can go catch the crooks all you want and they put them in jail and the jail is crowded and they let them out, but if you have a real strong neighborhood watch it is going to chase them into the neighboring areas."

(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.