Locking Out Crime
"People have cut the chain link fence and tried to get in, but that trips the silent alarm." Skip Wilber, San Joaquin County farmer
Woodlake citrus grower Chris Lange experiences tree fruit thefts on a regular basis—almost daily.
Sometimes he loses fruit when one of his workers loads up his car at the end of the day. At other times the theft is done by a passing motorist who is attracted by the lure of the colorful fruit hanging on trees near the road.
Those losses are costly enough, but occasionally Lange takes an even larger hit.
His biggest problem is with the W. Murcott, a desirable variety of tangerine that is harvested in the spring.
"This variety is so desirable that we have to guard the trees," said Lange, a director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. "On one occasion, we had a trespasser haul out an entire truckload."
Since some thieves tend to sneak onto his property after hours, Lange had to install cables and massive gates at entrance points to his grove. Undeterred, some thieves circumvented the barricade by driving through the middle of the grove between tree rows.
It's a familiar story among California farmers and ranchers who much too often are finding themselves and their property the targets of criminals.
For Lange and others who live in rural areas, thoughts of crime used to carry an "urban" connotation, but the buffer between urban and rural communities has become smaller each day. Watch the local news on television on any given evening and it's a strong likelihood that there will be a story about crime-sometimes violent, sometimes destructive, and always costly.
Ag Alert® recently compiled information on rural crime. We examined eight Central California counties that comprise the Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network. And we learned that in 2004, farmers in those counties experienced losses of $9.8 million due to agricultural-related crimes.
Consider these cases:
- A Colusa County almond grower became a victim of theft during the peak of harvest last year after thieves stole a set of double trailers loaded with nearly 12,000 pounds of almonds.
- A grower in Tulare County suffered a significant loss after pomegranates were completely stripped from his trees in one night. In the past two seasons, another Tulare County farm was left with no pomegranates to harvest after thieves stripped all the fruit off the trees.
- A San Joaquin County grower lost 400 gallons of fuel when thieves broke the lock on his fuel tank. Adding insult to injury, the thieves used a stolen tank wagon to haul off the fuel. Theft of diesel fuel could bring a grower's equipment to a sudden unplanned halt, resulting in costly delays.
- Last spring, a Stanislaus County beekeeper suffered a major loss after 64 beehives were taken from a rural location. Each hive was worth about $150.
- This season, an out-of-state beekeeper lost tens of thousands of dollars after hives were stolen from a secluded spot in Merced County. In addition, the owner of the almond orchard being pollinated suffered from the theft.
California farmers have learned in recent years that they not only need to lock up items like equipment and diesel fuel, they must also find ways to protect what they grow.
County law enforcement officers from around the state point out that the activities of today's criminals have reached new levels of sophistication.
"There are organized rings out there that hire crews and have a mechanism to get this product into the system. Most people can't imagine someone going in overnight and stripping off 20, 30, 40 acres of a crop, but it happens," said Bill Yoshimoto of the ACTION project. "People think it is just someone driving down the road for a piece of fruit. It is just not like that anymore."
Losses go beyond vegetables and tree crops, where thieves frequently have easy access. Now that prices for beef and other livestock have increased, animal thefts have become more prevalent.
"Fortunately these thefts don't happen all of the time, but they happen several times a season. It depends on what is being harvested, but it also depends on the price," Yoshimoto said. "Crooks are looking for opportunities, so they are gathering information wherever they can."
The ACTION project was created in the late 1990s by law enforcement officials who determined that they would have a greater impact on crime by working together-sharing crime scene data, criminal profiles and other information to help with investigations.
The counties involved are Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare. San Luis Obispo County joined the group later and its theft losses are not included in the $9.8 million. Expansion to include other coastal agricultural counties is also being planned.
"We maintain a close working relationship with members of the ACTION project," said Jeff Tyner, Kings County Rural Crime Unit investigator. "We utilize the ACTION project for a number of services including surveillance equipment and technology, the rural crime statistical database that we use to keep track of criminal activity and crime patterns, their involvement in the Owner-Applied Numbers program where they mark farm equipment, and monthly meetings where we network with law enforcement from other counties and routinely locate criminals by sharing information."
Tyner remembers one case in particular where the use of ACTION technology enabled him to solve a case that involved theft of a large amount of hay. By using the ACTION project's GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, Tyner was able to recover nearly half of the 21 tons of hay that was stolen. In addition, the judge ordered those found guilty of the crime to pay the farmer restitution for the hay that was not recovered.
To slow theft losses on his San Joaquin County farm, Dan Van Gronigan, partner in Van Gronigan and Sons, sets up a temporary chain link fence around his watermelon fields.
"Everybody seems to like watermelons. When a field is located along a main road, people frequently stop to steal some watermelons. In the process they mess up the vines. I just get so tired of people coming in our fields and helping themselves," Van Gronigan, a member of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, said.
In addition to the fencing, Van Gronigan also installs huge "Keep Out" signs to deter people.
"We prevent some thefts by putting the fencing around the field, but maybe it is more about the peace of mind that it brings," Van Gronigan said.
Before Van Gronigan installed the fencing, three different groups of people were arrested for stealing his watermelons. Since the fences went up, there haven't been any thefts.
"For a farmer, to work all season and then have your product ripped off at harvest is not a good feeling," Van Gronigan said. "These fences won't keep someone out who is really determined to gain access, but they do keep out the lion's share."
Another farmer who has found that high fences and locked gates help deter crime is San Joaquin County farmer Skip Wilber. An alfalfa, corn and nut grower and member of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, Wilbur and two neighboring growers store their farm equipment together in a fenced area.
"I haven't had anything stolen in a long time," Wilbur said. "People have cut the chain link fence and tried to get in, but that trips the silent alarm. There is a house on the property and the person who lives there also keeps an eye on things."
One tool that helps farmers and law enforcement officers is a law passed several years ago that makes it a felony to steal agricultural commodities worth $100 or more. Although the sentences for these crimes are often reduced to time in county jail or a work program, repeat offenders could face time in state prison for stealing $100 worth of avocados, said Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Task Force Detective Jeff Reed.
"State and local law enforcement agencies are stepping up the investigation and prosecution of farm property thefts," said Elisa Noble, California Farm Bureau Federation rural crime prevention coordinator. "We encourage farmers to recognize the threat of rural crime by being more aware of activity on their properties and communicating regularly with employees, neighbors and local law enforcement officials about trespassing and property thefts in their communities."
Read the four-part series.
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be reached at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.