As if economic pressures, insects, diseases, and weather weren’t enough to keep Florida growers busy, reports of ag-related criminal activity seem to be cropping up more lately.
According to the Highlands County Sheriff’s Department, several cases involving theft and property vandalism were reported in late March in the Sebring and Lake Placid areas. A wide range of items were taken from farming operations, including irrigation pumps, ladders, tubs, and various parts from “grove goats,” such as batteries, fuel, and hydraulics.
Similar occurrences were noted in neighboring Polk County around the same time period, too. According to Paul Wright, detective, Polk County Sheriff’s Office Agricultural Crimes Unit, there’s a normal recurring pattern of what is being taken. “It’s usually at the beginning or the end of the picking season,” he says. “Often, we have cases when it’s other crews coming in and stealing ladders and tubs and taking them right to their groves and using them to pick.”
In addition to basic farm equipment, Wright says diesel fuel is a big-ticket item for thieves. “Diesel fuel is the No. 1 stolen item, after that you deal with ladders, tubs, and grove goats,” he says.
Theft of crop protection chemicals is on that list, too. In late April and early last month, Gene McAvoy, UF/IFAS Hendry County Extension Agent and Florida Grower contributor, sent out alerts to his list of industry contacts regarding recent thefts of ag chemicals in the area. He reported several farms in LaBelle falling victim to chemical theft while another grower near Immokalee lost $30,000 in product. “We’ve had issues with chemicals [too],” says Wright. “It’s not as prevalent as diesel fuel.”
For those desperate enough, farms can seem like easy pickings, says Wright. “You’re dealing with hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres, and it’s difficult for an owner to secure their property 100% of the time,” he says. “There’s access, and unfortunately, criminals will take advantage of that.”
While certain areas might be seeing a relative spike in activity, it doesn’t mean these are isolated cases. According to a Florida Grower eNews reader survey sent out in mid-April, 54% of respondents said their operation was a victim of an ag-related crime in the last three to six months.
Digging a little deeper, it’s not always outside forces that are to blame in these cases. American Vegetable Grower (Florida Grower’s sister magazine) surveyed its readers and asked: Have you experienced problems with internal theft at your operation? More than 60% responded they had. “It could be an internal issue you are not aware of,” Wright says. “If none of your neighbors are having these problems, it might be something we look at in a different way.”
Though it might seem ag-related crime is on the rise, for the last couple of years to this year, Wright says his office has taken less reports. He cites proactive thinking and open dialogue as keys to success. “Our ag unit is really good at getting with the grove owners, seeing where the problems are, and trying to spend most of our time to curtail the issues,” Wright says.
In addition to taking care of things on a local level, Wright says sharing information with surrounding counties also helps curb crime. The Florida Agricultural Crimes Intelligence Unit brings all ag units that want to participate together to discuss problems and brainstorm ideas, Wright adds. “This gives us the ability to go into those counties (Highlands, Hardee, Hillsborough, Osceola, and Sumter) if we have an issue.”
Clear and consistent communication is vital to combat crime. Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, was made aware of a burgeoning crime situation by the county sheriff’s department ag unit and then alerted association members immediately. “It’s critical growers let the associations [local and state] know when they have any ag thefts and other related problems,” Royce says. “Not only can law enforcement notice a pattern, but also we can notice a pattern.”
The instant relay of information spreads the word for those in the affected areas to be ready and on guard. “It allows us an opportunity to get people on notice,” Royce adds.
Wright agrees that those in the ag community need to be speak up if they know — or even suspect — they have a problem. “The bottom line is if we don’t know there is a trend going on in a certain area, then we are going to focus our attention to what we do know,” he says.