Take action to prevent ag equipment thefts

Issue Date: August 26, 2015
By Christine Souza
Rancher Ann Vassar of Dixon, at left, a victim of a recent theft, speaks to Solano County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Currie about how to secure her ranch. Vassar’s all-terrain vehicle, a Polaris valued at $7,000, was later recovered after it was sold for a few hundred dollars to a local business.
Photo/Christine Souza
After experiencing theft of an important piece of equipment, Solano County rancher Ann Vassar added additional security measures such as new locks and “Farm Watch” signs.
Photo/Christine Souza
After experiencing theft of an important piece of equipment, Solano County rancher Ann Vassar added additional security measures such as new locks and “Farm Watch” signs.
Photo/Christine Souza

Some are crimes of convenience or opportunity. Others are more calculated. Either way, California farmers and ranchers face hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses each year as thieves steal all-terrain vehicles, tractors and other equipment.

"We have had six ATV thefts over a two-month period," said San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Randy Johnson of the Agricultural Crimes Task Force. "They take a quad from one ranch and drive it to the next and take another quad. You can find quads parted out and tractors parted out. It just depends on the level of dedication of whoever stole the equipment, whether they just get rid of it and turn it over for a quick sale or if they are trying to get more by parting it out."

California ranked fourth in the nation for equipment theft, with 734 thefts reported in 2013, according to a report from the National Equipment Register and National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Deputy Jim Currie of the Solano County Sheriff's Office, who is investigating several rural ATV thefts, said an uptick in the number of such thefts started about a month ago. He said people addicted to methamphetamine contribute to a majority of the property crimes that affect farms and ranches.

One such recent crime put rancher Ann Vassar of Dixon into a bind when she walked out to her barn one morning to find her Polaris ATV missing and the keys removed from another ATV, although the second vehicle was left behind.

"The night prior, I went into the barn and the two ATVs were there. I looked the animals over and it was 11:30 p.m. I went out the next morning at 5:30 a.m. and my ATV was gone," said Vassar, who operates a cow-calf and sheep ranch and is an employee-owner at Superior Farms. "It's my horse, in a sense, so I use it during the summertime to move cattle, recover lambs, irrigate, and it's helped me out a time or two when a cow has gotten crabby at me. It's invaluable to me."

Following the theft, Vassar contacted the Solano County Sheriff's Department to report that her ATV had been stolen and that it was originally purchased at the local dealership, where it is serviced.

"I later learned that the person from the dealership had gone down to a diagnostic shop for smog repairs and the dealer of the shop said, 'I think I got a pretty good deal on this four-wheeler,'" Vassar explained. "The man from the dealership went into the back shop and there was my four-wheeler, but it was stripped of the mud flaps and tools that were in the compartments."

The stolen ATV, valued at about $7,000, had been purchased for $400.

"The good that came out of this experience is my ATV was recovered and there wasn't any damage to it that we know of," Vassar said.

She had reported to the sheriff's office that the thief apparently used bolt cutters to break through two sets of locked gates to gain access to the ranch. A dirt bike, unknown to her, was found nearby that had also been reported stolen.

"In this particular case, the individual steals the ATV from Ann Vassar's ranch, (and) he hides it at another location. Another acquaintance of his drives it to Dixon and sells it. So, another guy stole it from the guy who stole it from the rancher," Currie said. "You are talking about the methamphetamine world. They steal from each other."

Oftentimes with ATV thefts, he said, deputies find that the farmer's vehicle is missing and there's a bicycle on their property.

"Sometimes they steal just for transportation to get from point A to point B, but most of the time they steal so that they can sell the vehicle to somebody else," Currie said.

In Imperial County near Holtville, diversified farmer Ralph Strahm said he is often affected by thieves stealing parts from farm equipment.

"Thieves usually show up and have the part numbers they need, and they take those parts off of the implements or the tractors. We have the same implements they have in Mexico, and they know exactly what they need and they just come and get it," Strahm said.

Strahm estimated his farm loses $20,000 worth of implement parts each year. Because replacement parts must be ordered and shipped, this means he might lose two days' worth of production related to that piece of equipment.

"It is always a nuisance, because you can't readily buy parts here; they have to be ordered. You've got guys that miss two days of work because there's nothing for them to do," he said.

To prevent theft, Currie suggested farm vehicles be kept in a secured, locked location, with the keys removed.

Deputies also recommend that farmers mark all equipment, tools and other property with an Owner-Applied Number, which can be arranged through the county Farm Bureau or the sheriff's department.

"It also really helps if (farmers) register their ATVs through (the Department of Motor Vehicles), even though they keep it on their private ranches," Currie said, "because thieves will remove the VIN number so that we cannot identify it, but they leave the sticker and with that information, I can run it through DMV and look up the owner and the VIN number."

Farm Bureaus in Solano and Yolo counties are partnering with county sheriff's offices on metal "Farm Watch" and "Rural Crime Task Force" signs that can be posted at farm properties.

In another crime-prevention effort, Nationwide Insurance hosts training sessions with county Farm Bureaus around the state, with three scheduled in coming weeks.

Robbie Midzuno, Special Investigations Unit consultant for Nationwide Insurance, said attending the training sessions will help farmers protect their property.

"Even if you already know the prevention tips, people talk about their experiences, what they did on their farm, which you can use to hopefully protect your property," Midzuno said.

Nationwide Insurance partnered with county Farm Bureaus to schedule these agricultural crime prevention sessions:

  • Oct. 22, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., 485 Business Park Way, Imperial.
  • Sept. 14, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Riverside County Farm Bureau, 21160 Box Springs Road, Moreno Valley. (San Bernadino County Farm Bureau is invited.)
  • Nov. 10, 3 to 4 p.m., Tulare County Farm Bureau, 737 N. Ben Maddox Way, Visalia.
  • Nov. 16, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tehama County Farm Bureau, 275 Sale Lane, Red Bluff.

The Nov. 16 session will cover crime prevention and rural road safety, and is intended for Farm Bureau members in Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Lassen, Modoc, Shasta, Siskiyou and Yuba-Sutter counties.

(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.

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