Vineyard thieves target grapes, harvest supplies
Thieves in Kern County were foiled when their van loaded with stolen grapes got stuck in a vineyard.
While farmers remain busy overseeing the harvest of the state's winegrape crop, thieves are equally busy targeting vineyards, stealing metal and any grape harvesting supplies they can get their hands on.
Michael Hat, a winegrape and almond grower who farms in Kern and San Joaquin counties, said he was in a state of shock after learning that $20,000 worth of his steel "T-bar" grape supports were stolen from their storage site at another farmer's ranch in Kern County.
"This is ridiculous. The thieves are probably getting a few cents a pound at the scrap yard for what they are stealing. They would make so much more money if they were working for minimum wage," Hat said. "From an economic standpoint, it just doesn't make any sense—not that theft is supposed to make sense."
Metal thieves had lifted eight pallets of the steel supports Hat uses as part of a vineyard trellis system. He estimated a total loss of about $20,000 for these supports, which are worth between $1.50 and $2 each. The suspects cashed in nearly 3 tons worth of supports and received $417.60 from the metal yard.
The farm's part owner and manager, Ralph Pistoresi, said earlier in the year he lost about 70 steel end posts used in the vineyard to metal thieves.
"These guys will go and steal a piece of wire off of a pump that is worth a small amount when it is sold as scrap. They go and risk their life in the middle of the night with live power on," said Pistoresi, who also farms in Tulare, Madera and Merced counties. "They are stealing a small dollar amount worth of scrap when they can go ask the farmer, who will give them a job and they'll make $100 a day. These thefts are unbelievable. We can't keep up with it."
Pistoresi values the end posts at about $15 each, so he is looking at a loss of more than $1,100.
The Kern County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Investigation Unit is busy working this case and other cases related to thefts happening in agriculture. Detectives are investigating reports of stolen grape picking trays, scales, wheels (for grape harvesting carts) and more. To combat these thefts, the Rural Crime Investigation Unit is using a helicopter to cover more ground. They commonly search the vineyards looking for people who do not belong or anything that is suspicious.
"We are in the high grape-picking season right now. We have a variety of things being stolen in the vineyards right now such as grape harvesting bags, harvesting trays and the actual crop," said Kern County Rural Crime Investigations Unit Detective Dave Weigand. "We recently found a van that was about 100 feet down between a row of vineyards. Dumped behind the van was over 1,000 pounds of picked grapes, and about 700 pounds were loaded inside the van."
Weigand said the suspects had stripped grapes out of a vineyard one night and were loading the fruit into their van when it became stuck in the mud. The thieves were forced to flee the scene, leaving their "score" behind. The loss to that grower was about $3,000.
Even with an assortment of thefts happening in the vineyards, Weigand said, metal theft is still one of the top agricultural crimes in the county.
"Metal theft remains a costly issue for farms and ranches throughout California. Much of our caseload is spent dealing with cases related to metal," Weigand said.
In the course of his investigation, Weigand visited a few local recycling yards and actually found the majority of Hat's stolen T-bar supports.
Detectives from the Kern County Sheriff's Department discovered nearly 3 tons of "T-bar" grape supports at a local recycling yard. Earlier, a farmer had reported these steel bars as stolen.
The metal thefts are still under investigation by Weigand, but he believes he has identified the two primary suspects responsible.
"In this case the recycler did not follow the ordinance as required by Kern County. They did not get a description of the vehicle or the vehicle license number and they didn't submit the reports to the county as required," Weigand said. "The scrap dealer said he didn't realize that they had these requirements, so I printed out copies of the ordinance and they placed my business card up on the wall next to two other deputies' business cards. Those deputies had been to the business in the past to tell them the same thing."
Danielle Rau, California Farm Bureau Federation director of rural crime prevention, said growers in all regions of the state are subject to the growing problem of metal theft.
"Across California we are looking at record losses due to metal theft, not just due to the replacement cost, but because of the extreme vandalism that is done to the property, which in most cases is irrigation pumps," Rau said. "The most important action farmers and ranchers can take to protect themselves is to diligently check their property and report any crime or suspicion of crime immediately."
Noelle Cremers, California Farm Bureau Federation director of commodities, said Farm Bureau will continue to work to address the issue at the state level and through county ordinances.
"Farm Bureau would like to see a statewide solution that truly addresses the issue of metal theft and truly prevents thieves from having a market available to them to sell stolen metal," Cremers said.
Until something can be done at the state level that puts more teeth into punishing recyclers and thieves who cash in on stolen goods, Cremers said farmers and detectives must work with the laws currently in place.
In the case of the recovered grape supports, Weigand said, the suspects may be looking at a felony charge of receiving stolen property and facing time in state prison.
When it comes to solving and preventing rural crime, Weigand said, detectives can't do it alone.
"It may take a little effort, but in the long run it is much easier to prevent crimes than to solve them," Weigand said. "We'll do everything in our power to find those responsible for these crimes and arrest them. But as a property owner, the responsibility is on you to let us know what's going on as soon as possible so we can do our job."
While Weigand urges the timely reporting of all rural crimes, he said it is especially important in the case of metal theft. This way law enforcement has an opportunity to recover the stolen property at local scrap yards.
"In the case involving the T-bar supports, the next time a steel truck came into the scrap dealer, it would have picked up all of the T-bar supports with a magnet, dropped them into the back of the truck and it would have been gone. We would have never found it," Weigand said. "If farmers wait too long to report these crimes, then the stuff is gone."
Tips for fighting crime
Here are some suggestions from law enforcement to help farmers and ranchers protect themselves and their property.
- Report, report, report! If rural crime detectives are not informed of the crimes, they don't know what to look for. Keep a pen and notepad in your glove compartment so you are able to record the license number and description of suspicious vehicles, and pass the information on to detectives. Know the phone number of your rural crime task force so you can report suspicious activity. Do not wait even a few days before reporting or simply ignore that the crime occurred.
- Record a detailed description of what you are reporting and have that information handy when talking to detectives. It is important that detectives get a realistic time frame.
- Take advantage of methods such as the Owner-Applied Numbers system to identify your property. Realize that when your property is recovered, you may be asked to prove that it is yours. In the case of metal, spray paint the bars or pipe with a common color to prove identity.
- Don't leave things in the field that you don't want stolen. If possibly, lock equipment inside a gated area and remove the keys.
- With crime at an all-time high and with thousands of acres to cover in a county, consider investing in some additional security such as a security guard.
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.