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New tactics weeding out farm crime

An agricultural version of the Neighborhood Watch program, better use of technology and other measures are helping reduce thefts.

September 06, 2009|Catherine Saillant

Santa Paula grower Bob Pinkerton was certain the young man he saw walking down a street was the one who had been drinking beer and smoking pot in his large avocado orchard in recent days.

Worried that he was a thief, Pinkerton used his cellphone to snap a photo and e-mailed it to Sgt. Tim Hagel of Farm Watch, an agricultural version of the Neighborhood Watch crime prevention program.

Within four hours, a sheriff's deputy had detained the man and arrested him on suspicion of vandalism and trespassing on Pinkerton's property. The man, a local vagrant, was on probation for earlier farm thefts.

Pinkerton, a third-generation rancher, credits Farm Watch -- an e-mail newsletter and alert network -- with helping him nab the guy.

"It's essential," the grower said. "If you don't have a mechanism for getting the word out, when you see something, you might just blow it off."

Created last year, Farm Watch helps farmers and ranchers keep a lid on the problem of agricultural theft, said Hagel, the Ventura County sheriff's sergeant who set it up.

Twice a month, Hagel compiles information about patterns of thefts, suspects and crime-prevention tips and e-mails the newsletter to about 350 Farm Watch members, who pass the tip sheet on so it eventually reaches more than 700 people in Ventura County.

Farm Watch, along with tightened regulations on recyclers, is credited with cutting down on a rash of metal thefts that peaked in 2007, Hagel said. There also have been busts of criminal rings stealing tractors, irrigation pipes, costly farm chemicals and, when prices spiked last year, diesel fuel.

In Ventura County, farm-related crime dropped 24% this summer compared to last, according to statistics kept by the Sheriff's Department. That comes on top of a significant drop in the previous year.

"We were chasing after thieves left and right," Hagel said. "We linked up all of the farmers out of frustration."

It's much the same story in other farm-rich regions of California. Although agricultural crimes are not tracked on a statewide basis, law enforcement agencies are reporting that heightened vigilance, better use of technology, collaboration and new laws have put a dent in farm thefts.

Members of a multi-county agricultural task force recently busted a ring that was stealing chemicals from farms in Kern and Fresno counties and taking them to Santa Cruz and Calexico to sell. Five suspects were arrested in three counties, and $500,000 worth of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides were recovered in Santa Cruz, said Det. Walt Reed of the Kern County Sheriff's Office.

"Since March, there hasn't been one chemical theft in Kern or Fresno counties," Reed said. "I'm thinking right now our farmers love us."

But Reed and others caution that thefts of fruits and vegetables are difficult to stop. An uptick in crime is expected with the fall harvest, Reed said.

For the last two weeks in Kern County, hundreds of boxes of grapes have been reported missing almost nightly, he said. "Crime follows the harvest," he said. "It doesn't stop at county lines."

Reed said the creation of an eight-county task force a decade ago proved critical in investigating and prosecuting agricultural crime.

The Central Valley Rural Crime Task Force shares information about crimes and suspects, and members work together to build cases against suspected thieves, he said.

The task force is part of larger network of 13 counties that use satellite and other surveillance technology in the fight against crime.

"The days of being able to leave the front door unlocked and the keys in the tractor are unfortunately over," said Danielle Rau, a rural crimes prevention coordinator for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "We have to be diligent in protecting our property and creating networks to watch out for each other."

Three years ago, metal thefts exploded with the price of copper and brass, and thieves eager for a quick buck ripped off valves, irrigation pipes and wiring.

Reed said eight Central Valley counties lost an estimated $6 million in metals in 2006. Even more costly for some farmers was losing a growing season while they hunted for replacement irrigation equipment, he said.

Falling prices, better security and tough new laws that went into effect in January have reduced the thefts, authorities say. Scrap-metal recyclers must ask for identification and wait three days before paying for metals. Information about the sale is forwarded to law enforcement. "You don't get a check until we've checked things out," Reed said.

Farmers also are getting more organized. Newsletters and alerts similar to Farm Watch are appearing in places like San Joaquin and Kern counties. Besides crime tips, they offer information on how to secure farm equipment and crops.

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