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Farm thefts underline need for protection, planning

volgariver/Getty Images fence surrounding horses grazing
THREATS: Some farms have been the target of ecoterrorism threats, such as letting livestock out or vandalizing property because it has livestock.
Minimize farm security risks with encompassing strategies.

Ask yourself: What if someone wanted to harm my farm — what would they target, what could they do and how easily could they do it? In talking about potential criminal activity on the farm, those were the questions posed by Peggy Kirk Hall, an Ohio State University associate professor in Agricultural and Resource Law, and also director of the OSU Extension Agricultural and Resource Law Program.

In March, an Ohio man was sentenced to one year in prison, restitution and five years of probation after stealing almost $95,000 in harvested grain, according to court sentencing records in Ashland County.  

The defendant took his employer’s gravity wagon full of grain and sold it to a local co-op in Ashland County under false pretenses. After the theft was discovered, the defendant fled from Ohio, eventually having to be extradited from New Mexico. 

“This case demonstrates just how vulnerable farmers are to potential crimes,” says Kirk Hall, who with Jeffrey Lewis recently wrote an Ohio Law Bulletin, which is available online. It outlines farm security issues that result in harm to farm property, laws that apply to these types of problems, and measures for preventing future occurrences.

In fall 2019, there was a string of agricultural heists in Michigan, including produce from fields.

In Fenton, Mich., 7,000 pounds of apples were plucked right from Spicer Orchards’ trees, and 1,000 pumpkins were stolen from McCallum's Orchard in Jeddo.

According to a New York State Police statement, $5,000 worth of Honeycrisp apples were stolen from Sanger Farms on Lockport Road in Porter last September. “The apples were picked from the bottoms of trees and were picked clean,” the report says.

All over the country, now that hemp is legal, farmers are reporting plant theft from the fields, as thieves are thinking they are harvesting cannabis. Many hemp farms have resorted to putting up signage informing passers-by that the crops do not contain THC.

Other kinds of thefts Kirk Hall hears about quite regularly include timber and cattle. “At night, thieves take trees out. Maybe from someone they know is an absentee landowner in Florida for the winter,” she says.

In southern Ohio, she’s also heard of missing cattle, likely loaded onto trailers at night. “One we constantly hear about is theft of anhydrous ammonia, copper or other valuable goods that can be on a farm,” Kirk Hall says.

A short-term employee assessing the operation or disgruntled employees also should make a farmer take extra precautions.

Be aware

“The take-home message is the need to be more aware and more careful of what's going on and around the property,” says Kirk Hall, who notes that criminals sometimes monitor the area, so take note of unfamiliar cars. They’ve been known to follow Amazon delivery trucks to see if packages are retrieved.

“If they are not, then they know no one is home, and they break in and commit theft, including the Amazon package. They can wipe out a farm shop," Kirk Hall says.

Farms have also been the target of ecoterrorism threats, such as letting livestock out or vandalizing property because it has livestock. “We seem to have these flare-ups every few years,” Kirk Hall says. “They are centered around opposition to technological practices or raising livestock, which seem to trigger intentional harm. Be sure to lock things up.”

Report the crime

If suspicious activity is happening, communicate with local law enforcement. “The pushback I often get from farmers is, ‘Law enforcement won't do anything because they don't have time,’” Kirk Hall says. “It's important to make that call, to document that you made that call, and to put them on notice. I have talked to sheriff deputies who say they make note of that and will monitor that area.”

If there has been a crime, secure the property and preserve the evidence. Get a police report, and if there is damage, theft or vandalism, give insurance companies prompt notification.

“And that's because they want to get in and investigate, they want to know what happened,” Kirk Hall says. “And if you wait too long, they may say we require prompt notification and you missed that window, so we're not going to cover it.”

While it hasn’t been reported in Ohio, in other parts of the country, some laws are being proposed to penalize people for harassing livestock. “They are doing it in different ways, like with drones or with four-wheelers,” Kirk Hall says. “This isn't the animal welfare advocates like we see here in Ohio. It’s just people thinking it's fun to go out and scare your livestock and make them run.”

The full Ohio Law Bulletin is available at farmoffice.osu.edu.

common farm security threats infographic

Minimize farm security risk

Kirk Hall offers this advice for managing farm security risk:

Think deterrence, detection and delay. Lock all buildings. Use bright lighting, motion detectors, security systems or cameras, and routine surveillance. Distance livestock and equipment from entry points.

Ensure emergency responders can locate your property quickly. Obtain a reflective address sign; check that the address is visible from all directions.

Mark and post property boundaries. Many criminal laws require proving an intruder knowingly and recklessly entered the property without authorization.

Manage who has permission to be on the property. Create a checkpoint for visitors, and limit access to buildings and vulnerable areas.

Don’t be too predictable. Farm patterns can create opportunity for intrusion.

Track incidents of suspicious activity. Train employees and family to recognize when someone is watching the farm.

Know your employees and what they’re doing. Investigate employees, conduct background checks and consider surveillance cameras.

Inspect incoming deliveries. Ensure that feed, seed, chemicals and other incoming supplies are from known suppliers.

Secure the farm’s utility services and storage site. Restrict access.

Review insurance coverage. Know your obligations under the policy to ensure compliance with claims.

Maintain property identification records. Keep records, photos and videos of personal property, including serial numbers and animal identification.

Consider using an independent professional security consultant. Request a full evaluation and ask a consultant to design a physical protection system based on risk.

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