It's not the type of crime that you hear about every day, and these aren't the type of criminals that grab headlines, but agricultural thefts have become one of the biggest burdon on North State Law Enforcement. That growing threat has prompted farmers, like Ryan Schohr, to become more vigilant. "Farmers are seeing a tremendous amount of problems here in Butte County, and throughout the North State with thefts occuring on our farms, and on our property."
One of the most widespread items being stolen is fuel. In part, because it's the one item needed, and available on almost every farm. "With the price of fuel, and energy as it is, diesel and gasoline are attractive targets, and a lot of farms have those things out at the fields this time of year, especially during harvest," according to Schohr.
Most commonly, fuel is reported as being stolen in moderate amounts, but there have been a handful of reports of large scale thefts, like the one that happened on Mike Vereschagin's ranch in Orland. "This past summer, we had a fuel wagon actually stolen from the ranch here. It had, at that point in time, about 400 gallons of diesel in here."
Vereschagin told our crews he did everything authorities recommended to keep his equipment safe, but even that wasn't enough to stop the brazen thieves from making off with more than $2,000 worth of fuel and gear. "Whoever came, and stole it, came in with a crane, or lift of some sort, and physically picked up the whole wagon, and loaded it up on a truck, or trailer, and hauled it away."
But it isn't just gas, and equipment that are being stolen. Crops like hay have also become a major target. "It's happened to three different growers of ours, and some of them have been hit two or three times," according to Custom Hay Operator Carl Martin. He says the number of thefts rose with the price of hay, and now that the crop is worth over $200 a ton, those growers are losing $200 to $300 of product every time they get ripped off. "More than likely, they're using it themselves. Based on the time spans between when it's taken. 3 to 4, 5 days. They could go out of the area, and sell it to horse people."
The other crop that's seen a massive spike in thefts is walnuts. Growers like Gary Anderson say the nuts are targeted because they're easy to unload, and they fetch a pretty penny. "This year it's $1.50, to $1.70 at the max for chandlers, so the higher prices bring out more theft." And larger amounts of theft as well. Earlier this fall, one grower even had a truckload of 80,000 pounds of walnuts stolen. "It's a great income for them, cause they can go out, and get them, and take them in, and sell them at those walnut places that buy them."
Some growers say those cash for walnut stands that have been popping up in the area created an instant black market for the nuts, and even law enforcement officials admit, some of those business's have raised their suspicion. "it just seems reasonable that they just pop up right around that time, and they're not offering normal market rates. Then yea, it should raise some red flags," according to Glenn County Undersheriff Rich Warren. He says lawmakers should look at implementing the same type of restrictions that have been set on business's that buy metals, such as copper. "There's no paper trail. There's nothing where we can really go back, and trace that out, or find where those walnuts are coming from, or where the hay is coming from."
But the biggest problem faced by authorities isn't a lack of regulations, it's a lack of man power, and funding. Warren told our crews that on a given night, his office has two or three people patrolling 1,400 square miles. "Our problem lies in the fact that we have so much area to cover, with so few people, that we just can't cover that area."
That's why farmers, like Carl Martin told us, looking our for each other has never been so important. "We're pretty good about watching out for the neighbors. We kind of know suspicious vehicles. I think it just has a lot to do with other growers, and ranchers keeping an eye out for each other."