Thieves continue to hit farmers hard

Photo courtesy of Kern County Sheriff’s Department.
A cut power pole.

Metal thieves stole about $1,300 worth of brass ball valves and aluminum camlocks from the fields of the Dutton Ranch Corp. in Sonoma County, Calif., says Jeff Carlton, the vineyard manager for the ranch. It could have been much worse.

“We haven’t been a huge target for theft,” he says. Although they had to order new valves and parts, they hadn’t begun irrigating, so the ranch’s 1,100 acres of wine grapes and 200 acres of organic apples didn’t suffer.

At farms and ranches across the country, thieves are driving off with virtually anything made of copper, aluminum, brass or stainless steel. They’re pulling out wires, hacking off sprinkler heads, valves and irrigation pipes, even tearing out engines and radiators.

“You name it, I’ve heard it,” says Noelle Cremers, a lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s been a huge nightmare.”

In 2006 alone, 1,182 incidences of metal theft were reported in eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley, the southern part of California’s Central Valley, where a quarter of the food in the United States is grown. The value of the metal was just under $2.969 million, says Assistant District Attorney Bill Yoshimoto, who heads Tulare County’s Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network (ACTION).

“Multiply that by a factor of nine who don’t report thefts,” he says, “it’s staggering. From my perspective, every farmer has been victimized by metal theft in one way or another.”

The Kern County Sheriff’s Department, which is also in the San Joaquin Valley, has a Rural Crimes Investigation Unit, headed by Sgt. Walt Reed. Reed estimates that metal theft has increased 65 to 70 percent in the last two years alone. There’s been an especially big spike in the theft of iron in the last six months. It used to go for about $110 a ton. These days it’s close to $250 per ton.

In Tulare County, the ag crimes unit began noticing the problem around 2003 or 2004, when the price of copper skyrocketed, Yoshimoto says. It went from around $1 a pound in 2002 to almost $4 a pound in 2005.

Effect on growers

Metal theft has a direct effect on growers, not because of the cost of the metal that’s stolen, but because of the cost of the damage, Cremers says. Although the value of the metal that was stolen in the Central and San Joaquin valleys was under $3 million, the damage cost farmers in those eight counties $5.8 million in 2006, not including their crop losses.

A thief can sell 40 to 60 feet of copper wire for about $2 to $3 per pound as scrap metal, but can leave behind $1,000 to $2,000 in damage, Reed says. There’s the cost to replace or repair the equipment, and the fence and locked gate, if the grower tried to protect it. Then there are the crop losses. Just a 10 percent yield loss in a 60-acre orange grove can be several hundred thousand dollars.

Some farmers who made claims to their insurance company have seen their rates go up, Cremers says. “I haven’t heard of anyone losing their insurance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Some farmers are afraid to report it.”

Farmers are especially vulnerable to thieves. It’s hard for law enforcement to cover the wide-open spaces they live in, and the thefts take place out of their sight, often months before they go to use the equipment and realize it’s broken or missing. Adding to farmers’ cost and frustration, thieves know how long it takes to replace the equipment, Cremers adds. As soon as it’s replaced, they steal it again.

Law Enforcement

Many metal recyclers aren’t being held accountable, Carlton says. They’re receiving brand-new rolls of copper wire and brand-new valves, which look very different from used ones, and they aren’t asking questions.

Law enforcement is offering more resources, Yoshimoto says, and it’s having an impact. They’re doing surveillance on farms where metal has been stolen in the past, and doing surveillance and running stings on dealers. The problem, he says, is that when they clamp down on local dealers, the crooks just go somewhere else.

There are some things farmers can do to protect themselves. At Dutton’s Ranch, they’re changing everything they can over to plastic, Carlton says. Growers can spray paint or mark anything that will be visible to a dealer, for example, brass valves, so they can identify it if it’s found. There’s no point marking the insulation covering wires or pipes, Yoshimoto says, because the thieves strip the insulation off before selling it.

Growers can register with their sheriff’s office for an Owner Applied Number (OAN), a tracking number they can engrave on a hidden spot on their equipment. The number is entered into a computer, so when stolen equipment is found, it can be returned.

Watch out for any suspicious activity, including on your neighbors’ properties, and report it to law enforcement, even if you’re not sure it’s serious. Try to get a description of vehicles, occupants, license plate numbers and the direction the vehicles were going. Be especially alert to vehicles that drive by slowly and often in a short period of time. In Kern County, law enforcement gives their cell phone numbers out so growers can get in touch with them immediately.

When possible, put fences around electric pumps. Lock equipment inside a barn or shed and bury conduits belowground, or install them so they can be unplugged and stored when they aren’t being used. These will at least keep them out of sight, Cremers says.

Some growers are hiring security guards, she says, but what often happens is that while the guards are on one side of the farm, the other side gets hit. Some growers are installing spotlights and even alarm systems. If the power goes out, they trigger an alarm or video camera.

“All of that costs money,” she says, “but after farmers have been hit a few times, they’re more willing to make that investment.”

The future

Legislation already exists that can prevent many of the thefts. By California law, dealers must record the place and date of the sale of any scrap metal; the seller’s identification, address and vehicle license number; and a description of the metal and where it came from. Dealers are required to keep these records for two years.

One of the problems with the current system is that although theft of a value of more than $400 is grand theft and punishable by three years in state prison, often this isn’t enforced, Yoshimoto says. In Kern County, there’s a 90 percent conviction rate for metal thieves, Reed says. The problem is that the jails are overcrowded. Many convicted metal thieves quickly return to steal again.

The California Farm Bureau, along with many other organizations and groups, is working hard to get a legislative solution to fill in the gaps. They’re focusing on making it less appealing for thieves to sell stolen metals.

“A lot of the people stealing metals are in the drug trade,” Reed says, “and in most areas, meth is the drug of choice.” They’re looking for a quick $100 or $200 cash transaction, Yoshimoto adds, and most of them want to be as unidentifiable as possible.

Requiring thumbprints to identify sellers of metals is unnecessary, Reed says. Instead, he and many others favor a statewide bill that would require dealers to pay by check instead of cash. He’d also like dealers to be required to mail the check to the address on the identification card, which both prevents sellers from receiving the money immediately and confirms their address.

Another shortcoming with the current laws is that each county monitors its own dealers, Reed says, so if one county is being tough on sellers, they just go to another one. He favors SB 691, which is a statewide solution.

“All counties need to come together and fight this epidemic problem,” he says. “If the California legislature doesn’t pass this ordinance, it’s going to get a lot worse.”

The Importance of Reporting Thefts

Although the reporting rate is improving, about nine out of 10 farmers don’t report farm crimes to law enforcement, says Bill Yoshimoto, assistant district attorney.

Some may think too much time has passed, or that their loss isn’t worth reporting, or they don’t have time to do it, but it’s crucial. It’s the only way law enforcement will know that metal theft is a serious problem they need to address, and where the hot spots are, lobbyist Noelle Cremers says,

Sgt. Walt Reed agrees, “If we don’t know what’s happening, we think everything’s fine.”

Web sites:
Kern County Rural Crimes Investigation Unit: www.co.kern.ca.us/sheriff/rciu.htm

Tulare County Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network (ACTION): www.agcrime.net

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Moose River Media based in Altadena, Calif.