Farmers and ranchers lose millions of dollars' worth of property each year to thieves who steal metal, equipment, crops and livestock. To solve crimes and recover property, agriculture and law enforcement keep a variety of proven tools in their crime-prevention toolbox, melding newer methods such as social media with more traditional techniques such as marking equipment and cooperating with sheriff's detectives who specialize in rural crime.
As public safety budgets have suffered, resulting in fewer deputies on patrol, farmers, ranchers and other rural residents have had to implement strategies to protect property, such as hiring private security and using farm watch groups and social media to spread the word about public safety issues.
After learning that burglars were throwing rocks at windows in her area to see if anyone was at home, farmer Charlene Borrelli of Hilmar decided there had to be a better way to communicate about rural crime. Borrelli became a founder of the Hilmar Farm Watch in 2007, fashioning it after the successful Barmont Neighborhood Watch in rural Merced and Stanislaus counties.
"In town, citizens can talk over their fences or in their front yards, but as a community with miles between us out in the country, we don't have that benefit," she said. "We've had success because of this sharing of information; we've had equipment that has been returned from counties 30 miles away because our network has become so large."
Participation in Hilmar Farm Watch began via email, and the volunteer-run group expanded its reach in 2011 by adding a Facebook page. The page now has 3,000-plus followers in several counties, including law enforcement. Residents can participate by posting photos of suspicious vehicles and people, license plate numbers and vehicle descriptions, photos of stolen equipment and other information.
The program has proven successful.
Hilmar dairy farmer Aaron Matheron and two neighbors became victims after thieves trespassed onto dairies, used the farmers' own tractors to load hay into a dump truck, and stole the truck. Matheron reported the crime to sheriff's deputies and to Hilmar Farm Watch, which posted a photo and information about the missing truck.
"Within 12 hours of the truck being posted on Facebook, someone saw it in Turlock and we were able to get it back," Matheron said.
Merced County Sheriff Thomas Cavallero said "without a shadow of a doubt" the Hilmar Farm Watch has helped the sheriff's department catch criminals.
"One of the most frustrating things our investigators go through is people not reporting crime," Cavallero said. "Because we can't be everywhere, information back to us is really critical. We can only follow up on things that we know about."
To the north, the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau manages Stanislaus Rural Crime Alert, an email service and Facebook page that acts as a clearinghouse for rural crime information supplied by law enforcement agencies, county Farm Bureaus and neighborhood and farm watch groups.
"We have nearly 4,200 people on Facebook that are watching this. Some of them are regular citizens, some of them are in agriculture and we are sure that some of them might be the people that we're trying to catch," said Tom Orvis, Stanislaus County Farm Bureau governmental affairs director.
Farmers say they also benefit from having sheriff's detectives assigned to focus solely on agricultural crimes.
Walnut grower Larry Betschart of Oakdale credits work by the Stanislaus County Rural Crimes Investigations Division with the recovery of a tractor and a 1,000-gallon orchard sprayer, worth $110,000.
"They know who the players are. They followed up and narrowed down their lead and they kept asking questions," Betschart said.
Betschart's equipment disappeared in January. The sprayer was returned in two weeks and the tractor was recovered four weeks after it was stolen.
"We got a few leads and found his sprayer after getting up in the sheriff's helicopter," Sheriff's Detective Cody Williams said. "I had an idea of where it was. It was a shot in the dark, but it worked perfectly and we got it back."
Danielle Oliver, rural crime prevention specialist for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers and ranchers who live in areas that employ specialized rural crime investigators have "an extra layer of protection."
"These detectives understand farming and ranching practices and take time to educate themselves, meet with farmers, attend Farm Bureau meetings and become aware of the different processes and seasonal changes that occur," Oliver said.
Williams said farmers and ranchers will need to approach rural crime prevention differently now, by doing more online reporting and sharing of information.
"When I came to this department, we were doing small meetings at fire stations, but as soon as we turned on the social media and used Facebook, it has been incredible," he said.
Making sure stolen equipment is identified so that it can be returned is another important factor in solving rural crimes.
"We come across property almost on a daily basis that we suspect of being stolen, but if we cannot determine who the rightful owner is, we cannot arrest people for having it," said Sgt. Michael Chapman of the Fresno County Sheriff's Office Ag Task Force.
Through the Owner-Applied Number program, farmers and ranchers can have tools and equipment marked with an identification number that, when checked against a national database, will connect recovered property with the rightful owner.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)