Farm Thieves Target Grapes, and Even Bees




Agricultural Theft Up

Steve Mello, whose corn and alfalfa farm has been hit by thieves over the past year, says, “It's difficult to lock up 1,400-plus acres.”

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — 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 Sergeant Reed, a 28-year veteran of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. “But these grapes were just thrown in a Styrofoam box.”

Sergeant 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 Sergeant 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,” Sergeant 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,” Sergeant Reed said. “That’s money they can use to put gas in their trucks. They can get some food.”

Nor are the crimes limited to poorer areas; in Napa County, where fans of the good life flock for the wine and warm weather, the police set up a tip line in June to combat a raft of thefts, including solar panels at some vineyards.

In other areas, deputies say they have witnessed a kind of Robin Hood effect, where some small, struggling farmers filch materials from their better stocked competitors.

“It’s typical during certain times of the year: you’ll see a surge in theft from bigger farms,” said Deputy Sheriff John H. McCarthy, a rural crime investigator for Santa Barbara County. “Chemicals, fuel and the type of things you need to put in a new crop.”

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 beekeeper based in Colorado, was one of those hit, losing more than 400 hives — valued at about $100,000 — in California in January. And while Mr. Long later recovered the hives, and most of the bees therein, he said the thieves were getting bolder. “This is way more than we’ve ever had to deal with,” he said.

 

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