Ag Theft

A harvester is shown picking carrots in a Grimmway Farms field. Heavy equipment left in remote fields also is “easy pickings” for thieves.

Business owners know — only too well — that if they don’t nail something down, it stands a good chance of being stolen.But farmers generally don’t have the ability to nail down their valuables.

Whether it is produce hanging from vines, animals grazing in pastures or expensive equipment left in remote fields, their “valuables” are easy pickings.

A state law authored by state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, and recently signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom aims to better protect California’s farmers and catch the thieves who are increasingly targeting them.

Senate Bill 224 creates a new category for grand theft of agricultural property. It requires that the fines collected from people convicted of agricultural property theft be distributed to agriculture crime prevention programs. In a press release thanking the governor for signing the bill, Grove noted: “Farming is not a typical 9-to-5 job. California farmers work long hours, relying on Mother Nature’s schedule. Agriculture is a unique industry, and unfortunately, farmers’ needs are often overlooked. One of those needs is commonsense legislation, which seeks to protect them from agricultural theft.”

Grove partnered with Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux in crafting the legislation. One of the state’s largest agricultural counties, Tulare recorded $2 million in agricultural thefts in 2018 alone.

“When our partners in agriculture are victimized, we are all victimized,” Boudreaux explained. “People lose jobs. Prices go up. Livelihoods are lost. I, personally, cannot stand back and watch that happen.

Senate Bill 224 is a necessary step forward in much-needed legislation to protect our growers.”

Grand theft, which is defined in state law as the theft of property valued at more than $950, can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony.

People convicted of these crimes can receive prison sentences and fines of $1,000 for a misdemeanor and $10,000 for a felony.

In addition to directing money collected from fines to agricultural crime prevention programs, proponents of the new law note that establishing a new crime category will help track the incidents of crime, the amount of agricultural losses and the thieves. A sampling of recent cases includes the stripping of copper wire from water wells, theft of beehives, heavy equipment and electronic monitoring equipment stolen from fields. Produce has been rustled from loading areas and cattle from pens. You name it and it’s been stolen, costing farmers millions of dollars to make repairs and replace equipment.

And as more farms “go green,” even the solar panels they have installed to replaced fossil fuel engines have been unbolted and hauled away.

California’s rural crime prevention programs are currently funded by legislatively directed grants and state fees. But this has been an unreliable as it depends on the economy and changing political priorities.

And without the establishment of a specific category in the state penal code identifying agricultural thefts, the crime gets lost in “general” grand theft statistics.

Rural crime prevention programs in the Central Valley and Central Coast will benefit from the directed funding provided when the new law goes into effect in January.

These programs bring together the efforts of law enforcement agencies, district attorneys and agricultural commissioners across many California counties.

California first authorized the creation of the Central Valley Rural Crimes Prevention Program in Tulare in 1995. It was expanded in 1999 to include Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

In 2003, the Central Coast Rural Crime Prevention Program was established to include Monterey, San Benito, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and San Louis Obispo counties.

But state agricultural officials note that more must be done.

“While this legislation will be a good tool for law enforcement, California’s farmers and ranchers must also be willing to report thefts and other, perhaps seemingly insignificant, crimes to the appropriate officials,” Robert Spiegel, policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told AgAlert, an industry news service. “This has the potential to greatly assist rural law enforcement with establishing crime trends and mapping that can be utilized in larger investigations and lead to arrests.”

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