SALINAS, Calif. — The chief of the garbanzo bean task force was on routine patrol on the rural roads of the Salinas Valley when the call crackled over his radio. A sheriff's deputy on stakeout in a garbanzo bean field reported that a suspicious vehicle parked nearby had sped off as he approached.
The task force leader, Monterey County Sheriff's Sgt. Joe Anzini, gunned his engine and gave chase. After a brief pursuit, he pulled the car over. Anzini and another officer questioned the driver for several minutes as night fell and a hard wind kicked up little cyclones of dust on the desolate rural road. The officers finally received permission to search the trunk.
"Beer, beer and more beer," Anzini muttered, as he examined the contents. "Shopping bags and more shopping bags. But no garbanzo beans."
Anzini speculated that the men were scared off by the deputy before they had a chance to raid the fields. They probably will return another night, he said, to bedevil the garbanzo bean farmer.
Crop rustlers are plaguing California farmers, and rural law enforcement agencies are using such methods as stakeouts, task forces and sting operations to protect the fields. About $50 million worth of agricultural products in the state were stolen last year from fields and packing plants, estimated Rick Griego, president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force. The losses, he said, have quadrupled over the last five years.
Thieves steal almost anything that grows in the ground.
Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley hired helicopter-borne security officers to guard their drying grapes from raisin raiders. Monterey County sheriff's deputies routinely patrol the fields around Castroville because artichokes--which wholesale for as much as $1 each during the off-season--are so frequently pilfered.
Avocado theft was such a problem in Santa Barbara County that the Sheriff's Department set up a sting operation and prosecuted several restaurant owners for buying hot avocados. And farmers throughout the state sprinkle a confetti-like substance to mark their hay because thieves not only steal stacked hay but are hijacking hay trucks.
"We're not talking about Mr. Jones taking some vegetables for his family," said Deputy William Spears of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. "These people are making off with enormous quantities and selling the stuff."
Crop rustling is not confined to California, Griego said. Soybean farmers in Georgia, grapefruit growers in Texas, corn farmers in Nebraska and melon growers in Florida all report increases in theft.
Most people who live in cities are oblivious to rural theft, Griego said. Their concept of crime is limited to hold-ups, rapes and murders.
When farmers are ripped off, however, those in the city also suffer: They pay higher prices in the supermarket.
With the price of fruit and vegetables escalating, crop rustlers have little difficulty finding markets. Many unload their products at produce markets in Los Angeles or in the Bay Area, and some sell to local merchants or at flea markets. In an attempt to cut down on the theft, legislation recently has been proposed in California to require anyone possessing more than 200 pounds of produce to have a bill of sale.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to curb agricultural theft. As small family farms disappear and as enormous corporate farms encompassing thousands of acres proliferate, deputies in rural areas have difficulty keeping up with the thieves.
When a garbanzo bean crime wave broke out in Monterey County last summer, the sheriff's substation in King City (about 45 miles south of Salinas) was overwhelmed. Only four deputies work the evening shift and they cover about 2,000 square miles. After farmers spotted thieves in action and called the sheriff, it often took deputies up to 30 minutes to get there. The thieves usually were long gone.
"People were ripping off the plants night and day," Anzini said. "They'd go in and just decimate the field. One field had so many bald spots it looked like the back of a mangy dog."
Easy to Store
Thieves steal enormous quantities, Anzini said, because garbanzo beans do not have to be immediately refrigerated, as some vegetables do. They store the plants in garages and sell them at flea markets for a nice profit--five plants for a dollar. Most city residents sample garbanzo beans only at salad bars, but in rural Monterey County the beans often are eaten right out of the pod like peanuts or boiled in water and salted.
Anzini initiated a "tactical action plan" last summer to deal with the problem. He equipped his deputies with binoculars and set up a stakeout schedule, alerted the district attorney to ensure aggressive prosecution and told farmers to call the substation at the first sign of trouble. Anzini's plan initially was met with some derision and skepticism.