I read several articles about the widespread thievery going on in the central valley of California. What virtually every article ignores or fails to mention is that central California has a huge population of illegal aliens.
I guess as Americans we are supposed to ignore the obvious.
Sgt. Walt Reed said he could tell right away that the grapes were stolen. They looked like an ordinary bunch. Except, he said, for the way they were dressed.
“Usually grapes are put into plastic bags,” said Reed, a 28-year veteran of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. “But these grapes were just thrown in a Styrofoam box.”
Reed – who eventually arrested a suspect after staking out a Kern County vineyard – is just one of dozens of deputies on the front lines of agricultural crime in California, home to the nation’s most productive farms and the people who prey on them. While thievery has long been a fact of life in the country, such crimes are on the rise and fighting them has become harder in many parts of California as many grants for rural law enforcement have withered on the vine.
While other states have their own agricultural intrigue – cattle rustlers in Texas, tomato takers in Florida – few areas can claim a wider variety of farm felons than California, where ambushes on everything from almonds to beehives have been reported in recent years. Then there is the hardware: Diesel fuel, tools and truck batteries regularly disappear in the Central Valley, the state’s agricultural powerhouse, where high unemployment, foreclosures and methamphetamine abuse have made criminals more desperate, officials say.
“All of our ag crimes are up,” said Reed, who oversees a unit of two full-time detectives – down from three a year ago – all patrolling a county about eight times the size of Rhode Island.
A wet winter and warm summer, after all, have meant healthy crops, he said, and a healthy market means happy thieves.
“Everything this year is doing well,” Reed said. “And if it’s doing well here, there’s somebody looking to steal it.”
Counties up and down the state also are dealing with a surge in copper theft – a perennial problem made all the worse of late by the soaring price for the metal. Such robberies are remarkably simple. Bandits simply snip copper wires running between outdoor wells and their power boxes.
“To repair them is anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 a whack,” said Greg Wegis, a Kern County farmer. “We repaired one, and it immediately got ripped off again.”
And copper is not the only tempting metal.
“Two hundred pounds of iron might bring them 75, 100 bucks,” Reed said. “That’s money they can use to put gas in their trucks. They can get some food.”
Not even insects are immune. In Madera County, about 130 miles east of San Francisco, officials saw a rash of bee burglaries this year, as a shortage of able-bodied pollinators drove up the price.
“They’d just go in there and they smoke the bees, sedate them and take them,” Sheriff John Anderson said. “And they wear protective gear just like the pros.”
Brian Long, a Colorado-based beekeeper, was one of those hit, losing more than 400 hives – valued at about $100,000 – in California in January. And while Long recovered the hives, and the bees therein, he said the thieves were getting bolder.
“This is way more than we’ve ever had to deal with,” he said.
Like many lawmen in vast agricultural areas, Anderson said a major challenge was the remoteness of farms and the lack of witnesses.
“It’s not like breaking into the neighbor’s house and the dog barking,” he said. “These things are just sitting out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Chris Wadkins, president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, a nonprofit coalition of law enforcement and agricultural organizations, echoed that sentiment. Wadkins, a deputy sheriff in San Bernardino County, said his department had been battling what he called “an organized crime ring of sorts” with a very specific target: avocados.
“You always get your mom and pop who might stop and pick one or two for dinner,” Wadkins said. “That’s not what we’re talking about here.”
Danielle Rau, director of rural crime prevention for the California Farm Bureau, said the nonviolent nature of farm theft often made it a low priority when it comes to financing.
“Violent crimes have to come first,” Rau said, “and unfortunately, sometimes ag crimes take a back seat.”
California has long provided grants to some coastal and Central Valley counties for rural crime prevention. But according to the California Emergency Management Agency, the amount allocated has shrunk from nearly $4 million in fiscal 2009 to a little more than $2 million in fiscal 2011.
The cutbacks are not limited to California. Florida officials recently lost or left vacant more than a dozen positions from their agricultural crime units. In Texas, which also has seen an increase in agricultural crime, authorities rely on membership groups like the Special Rangers of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, who investigate livestock and equipment theft, but are not paid with taxpayer dollars.
With many California counties cutting back, some rural dwellers have taken matters into their own hands. Take Steve Mello, for example, a charmingly crusty corn and alfalfa farmer whose 1,450 acres sit in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Mello said hundreds of pumps had been vandalized by copper thieves in the delta, threatening to flood some farmland that sits below sea level. Thieves have taken about $15,000 worth of his property in the past year.
“It’s difficult to lock up 1,400-plus acres,” he said. “The value of the fences would be worth more than I’m worth.”
Still, Mello was so frustrated that he briefly took to sitting sentinel on his tractor with a shotgun. Not that he ever saw anyone, thankfully.
“Death for thievery is kind of a severe sentence,” he said. “I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.”