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Farmers say ag thieves getting more brazen

Scott Hunter can't believe how bold thieves have become.

The Livingston almond grower has been hit repeatedly by thieves stealing metal, equipment and even almonds. But the thieves he caught two months ago were the most brazen he's seen.

In the middle of the day, Hunter and his employees found a man with an orange vest and orange hardhat cutting a 30-foot pipe into smaller sections.

"He was trying to look official," Hunter said. "We caught him red-handed."

Hunter's experiences with thefts are hardly news to anyone who farms in Merced County. Everything from copper pipe to giant tractors has been the focus of thieves.

But it's metal that most thieves target. Metal taken to scrap metal places can bring good prices, and in the rural community, metal pipes and other equipment are everywhere.

Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey has asked to fund a new, four-deputy sheriff's team that would only pursue thieves who target rural communities.

At a recent meeting, Kelsey said thieves are becoming more shameless. They're hitting farms during the day, while growers are at home or in their fields.

Hunter agrees with Kelsey. He said the Merced County's Sheriff's Department rural task force has been helpful in getting criminals in jail and off the farms. But he has also spend thousands of dollars to try to keep his equipment and farm safe. "I recently put in six surveillance cameras," Hunter said. "That alone cost me about $6,000."

Hunter's farm has also had chain saws, power washers and generators stolen. At one point, he had one employee who did nothing but drive around the ranch, looking for crooks.

In the past, diesel fuel was a common target for thieves at Hunter's ranch, but he took care of that problem. "We went to electric pumps," he said. "I haven't lost any diesel for four years."

When the pumps were still on diesel, Hunter would go from well to well, turning on the pumps. Once, he came back to the first pump he had turned on — only to find that someone had turned off the diesel and cut the pipe.

"I actually caught them doing it," he said. "At that time, I was getting hit almost every weekend, and losing a couple hundred gallons of diesel."

Because of the huge number of rural thefts, Hunter is fencing his entire property this winter. He also has used new technology to mark all of his equipment. The mark on the equipment can't be seen except with a black light.

Although he has taken a number of steps to stop thieves, Hunter said that if he makes it inconvenient for thieves, they will find someone else to steal from.

"It's like putting your thumb in the dike," he said. "They will just find another way to steal."