Rural crime adds to pain from drought


Issue Date: May 13, 2015
By Christine Souza
Sgt. Ryan Hushaw of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office Agricultural Crimes Task Force talks to farmer Matthew Efird of Caruthers, who says this irrigation pump on his farm has been targeted on several occasions by thieves who steal copper wire.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
Sgt. Ryan Hushaw of the Fresno Sheriff’s Office Agricultural Crimes Task Force and farmer Matthew Efird of Caruthers examine Efird’s irrigation system. Thieves vandalize cement pipes to get at the brass valve stems inside.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

Thieves will steal anything they can get their hands on, from commodities and cattle to equipment, fuel and tools. Now, as California endures a fourth consecutive year of drought, law enforcement officers remind farmers to be vigilant and check irrigation pumps, brass fittings and steel pipes, which remain hot items for thieves.

"Farmers have less water to irrigate their crops and when they have a pump that is damaged or they find during an irrigation cycle that a pump is disabled, it may take more water to make that crop healthy again," said Yuba Community College District Chief of Police John Osborne, a member of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force.

Osborne said members of the task force, at a recent meeting, described metal theft as an ongoing issue in agricultural communities throughout the valley, even though incidents have slowed somewhat with a decline in the market value of copper.

Fresno County farmer Matthew Efird, who grows almonds, walnuts, winegrapes and raisins at the family farm in Caruthers, said he depends on a drip-irrigation system to maintain those permanent crops.

"Anytime that we get a pump vandalized, obviously that is going to put us behind as far as our irrigation schedule," Efird said.

"For farmers of young plants or newly planted almonds, that (inability to irrigate due to a damaged pump) would be a lot more critical," he said. "If I was in my first irrigation cycle after planting a block of trees, and all of a sudden my well went down or if my wire was stolen and I couldn't get to that orchard for a week, that would be detrimental."

Efird said he knows his local sheriff's detectives by name because rural crime is such an issue. To repair an irrigation pump from which the copper wire has been stolen, he said, costs $1,500 at minimum—and if the pump or well was damaged during the theft, the cost could start at $5,000.

As California growers face reduced water supplies due to the ongoing drought, repairing a pump that has had the copper wire stripped out puts added stress on already busy pump-repair companies.

"We have an upstanding relationship with our pump company and sometimes it can be upwards of a week wait, depending on how severe our need is for water, because they are being pulled in so many different directions," Efird said. "It's not just the out-of-pocket loss and the frustration of having to deal with it, it is also the response time from the pump companies."

Clayton Jacobsen, owner of Fresno-based Diversified Ag Enterprises, specializes in installation of new irrigation pumps and conducts pump repairs for growers from Madera to Dinuba.

"I've only been in business for a year, but we are so busy we can't see straight right now," Jacobsen said, attributing the demand not so much to theft, "but the water table is going down and as the water table goes down, you need to have your pumps reworked."

San Joaquin County winegrape and cherry grower Joe Valente said that in his area, farmers interested in pump repairs are placed on a waiting list.

"Pump repair companies are very, very busy, and if we wind up hitting a hot spell, then everyone will want to start irrigating at once," Valente said. "It is not only your pump company; it could be your utility provider and how soon they can get out. If there is enough damage and you have to replace the switchbox, then you are also talking about the county inspector."

Valente said wire was stripped from one of the farm's irrigation pumps last fall, and he held off having it repaired so it wouldn't be targeted again. For pumps that are hit routinely, the farm has invested in various locking mechanisms, he said.

To assist farmers and rural detectives in dealing with the costly issue of metal theft, the California Farm Bureau Federation supports Assembly Bill 1019, by Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella. The legislation would create a Metal Theft Task Force to provide additional resources to local law enforcement to focus solely on metal theft.

Since the recession in 2008, Osborne said, counties and cities have experienced a reduction in resources, making it more challenging to maintain staffing levels and, therefore, dedication to prevention of agricultural crime.

"We would be in favor of any additional resources that we can dedicate toward metal theft and other agricultural-related crime," Osbourn said.

Although reports of metal theft decrease when the price of metals dips, Sgt. Ryan Hushaw of the Fresno County Sheriff's Office Agricultural Crimes Task Force said metal theft "is always a problem."

"A majority of the cases that we handle somehow have a nexus to metal," Hushaw said. "We have two full-time investigators that only deal with metal theft. They visit metal recycling yards to make sure recyclers are abiding by state law, and to ensure that if any suspicious material comes in, that they are keeping receipt of that and identifying who is bringing that in."

To prevent the theft of metals on the farm, rural crime detectives recommend that farmers conduct routine checks of their pumps, mark as much equipment as possible—including the pump itself—with their owner-applied number and, most importantly, report thefts right away.

Something new happening in the valley, Hushaw said, is a slight rise in the theft of the actual pump itself.

"Thieves are actually unbolting the entire pump system from the cement that it is anchored into, or we've even seen where they've used a cutting torch to take the whole pump," Hushaw said. "I speculate that maybe they are selling these pumps on the black market or perhaps they are cutting them up with a torch and recycling the metal.

"If a pump is out there, a thief is going to try and break into it. In a drought situation, if growers are not using their pumps as often, they may sit out there unchecked, so we would just recommend that someone is out there checking the pumps to make sure that they are not the victim of a theft," Hushaw said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.