Rural growers, processors make life tougher for thieves

Way out in the farmland of the Northern San Joaquin Valley, thieves might think they have easy pickings.

They can yank copper wire from an irrigation pump and sell it to a recycler. They can swipe a calf and sell it to an-other farmer. They can make off with a big rig filled with almonds and fence them for a few hundred thousand dollars.

They can do this if no one is watching -- but they might find that this isn't the case. Growers and processors have reacted to the thefts with alarm systems, video cameras, Neighborhood Watch groups and other measures.

"We're trying to make it as difficult as we can for them," said Scott Phippen, co-owner of a Ripon-area almond processing plant that was victimized in a spate of nut thefts in 2006.

Theft long has been a problem in rural areas. The population is sparse, so thieves often can get in and out without detection. Many properties are fenced, but this is impractical in some areas.

Recently, the problem has been compounded by the high prices that farm products -- notably nuts, cattle and pollinating bees -- have been getting on the market. The prices have brought a measure of economic health to farmers, but are a lure for thieves who know where to unload what they have taken.

On top of this are the rising prices for metal, especially copper. Officials say it is being stolen mainly by drug addicts.

"They're all screwed up from taking drugs all day, so they can't work and they steal to support their habit," Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMar-tini said.

DeMartini, who also is a grower, said help could come from new regulations on recyclers. A year-old ordinance for unincorporated Stanislaus County requires that scrap metal dealers pay by check and report each day's transactions, among other things.

Most cities in the county have adopted similar ordinances. A bill by Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, would regulate metal recycling statewide.

Growers say these thefts go beyond the loss of wiring. Ripping it out can disable the pump, and if it happens in the heat of summer, crops can die.

"For just a few hundred dollars' worth of copper wire, it may cost $4,000, $5,000, $6,000 to repair the damage," DeMartini said.

Dealing with theft of metal and other property also takes up time farmers would rather spend on producing crops.

Crime prevention experts said a key measure is to put identifying marks on property -- such as brands on cattle or serial numbers on tractors. This can help investigators track them.

It helps to provide as much detail as possible when reporting crimes, said deputy Tim Reed, who oversees Neighborhood Watch programs for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. Details can include a thief's facial features and clothing, and the model, color and condition of the thief's vehicle.

Neighborhood Watch groups compile information on suspicious activity and keep in touch via newsletters, e-mail and other means. The idea is to let offenders know they are being watched, but not to confront them.

"You have to train yourself not to be a vigilante per se, but to be vigilant," Reed said.

Locks come in handy, too -- on barns, fuel tanks, mailboxes and other rural targets. DeMartini said the farmhouse where he grew up never was locked, but that's not an option these days. He no longer leaves outgoing letters at his mailbox, dropping them off in town instead.

Simple steps help. So do high-tech measures, such as alarms on tractors that contact the owner by phone or e-mail if someone is tampering.

"It lets these guys know that we're watching, that we're getting better technology," Phippen said.