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.