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Anguished Farmers Losing Fruits of Labor to Thieves

June 20, 2004|Matt Sedensky | Associated Press Writer

VOLCANO, Hawaii — Lance Yamashiro's exotic crops of wasabi and Japanese radishes used to attract the attention only of chefs and grocers.

But his produce has caught the eye of a new breed of food enthusiasts -- thieves.

Hawaii farmers are finding their wares endangered not only by what nature dishes out, but by criminals capitalizing on weaknesses in rural security and making off with everything from bananas to bees, pesticides to plows.

"Mother Nature's been hitting us hard," said Yamashiro, who has lost crops and equipment to theft. "If the human factor sets in and hits us harder, I'm going to have to lay off employees."

It is not just Hawaii; stolen farm and construction equipment amounts to an estimated loss of $1 billion annually across the country. Add to that tens of millions of dollars in thefts of actual produce from farms, and farmers say they have an epidemic on their hands.

"To them, it's 'what's a banana?' or 'what's a papaya?' " said Yamashiro, who said he's hit by thieves an average of twice a month. "But when the market is really short and we're getting premium dollar, it hurts."

Hawaii's agricultural capital is here on the Big Island, which is also the state's center of farm theft. Varied crops, from the well-known Kona coffee and macadamia nuts to the more exotic lychee, mangosteen and rambutan, cover nearly 1 million acres. Theft on that land amounts to around $1 million in losses each year, Alan Takemoto of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation estimates.

The toll is evident in places like Morton Bassan's property, south of here in Naalehu.

Riding through the fields in his Chevy Tracker, Bassan slammed on the brakes.

"Oh, here's an orange," he said, seemingly far too excited for a citrus farmer with 152 acres of trees. "Maybe it was too ugly for them."

Bassan's farm was free from thieves during his first 15 years of operation. He said problems started in 1994 and escalated to incredible levels.

"We couldn't figure out why we weren't getting a normal crop," he said.

He tried everything: a double set of 7-foot-high barbed-wire fences surrounding his land, security cameras, armed guards, even nail boards hidden in the grass.

Nothing stopped bandits from making off with hundreds of thousands of oranges, he said, and production dropped from more than 75,000 cases during the 1997-98 season to less than 5,000 cases this past season.

Other farmers say Bassan's claims are exaggerated, but there's little way for police to tell. Regardless, he has given up, laid off all his employees, and is preparing to subdivide his property and put it up for sale.

Brazen thieves have pulled off heists on farms throughout Hawaii and around the country. Orange trees -- 2,000 of them in a single night -- were uprooted in California's Tulare County. Chemical fertilizer thefts throughout the country have been attributed to illegal methamphetamine labs.

"Anything that can be converted to cash is a target," said Vern Inouye, owner of Floral Resources/Hawaii, whose Pahoa farm was robbed of as many as 2,000 anthuriums in a recent heist.

"Thieves are creative, so we have to stay creative," said Diane Ley, a deputy on the state Board of Agriculture. "It keeps shifting, just like the weather."

Many farmers say they've increased security, from dogs to high-tech. Yamashiro added about $5,000 in security cameras and other equipment -- but it, too, was stolen.

Aside from the hurdles of securing a large piece of property, farm theft is tough to prove and even tougher to prosecute.

"There's no proof of title that goes along with a basketful of apples," said Robert Thompson, a Kansas City, Mo., attorney specializing in agricultural law who also has a grain and cattle farm.

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