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A bill in the California Legislature would strengthen sentencing for those convicted on on-farm theft and use fine funds to boost rural crime prevention efforts.

Bill aims to curb on-farm theft

Stronger sentencing, more funding for rural crime prevention proposed.

Growing tree nuts, like all forms of agriculture, is full of challenges and difficulties.

Anyone that grows a crop or is engaged in a livestock or dairy operation knows the danger associated with natural disasters like floods or wildfires. Other major weather events, from high winds to drought, can also destroy a crop and ruin a season.

In current times there are real concerns about trade conflicts and rising tariffs that make farming and ranching a greater risk, and the availability of farm labor is a problem many must deal with every year.

But for some agricultural producers, theft on the farm and ranch is a problem that seems to be growing each year as rural crime rates rise. Thieves have apparently learned that targeting rural areas often comes with less risk of detection than crime in the city.

It’s true. Nationally, crime rates in rural areas are rising, in some cases just as fast or faster than crimes in the city. That is a Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) statistic that may be hard to believe, but one supported by crime statistics in recent years.

Crime on the farm and ranch has become such a problem over the last 5 to 7 years that state and national attention is being directed toward the issue with the development of organizations like the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force. In the Golden State, lawmakers are currently entertaining changes in state laws to make crimes against farmers and ranchers punishable by stronger sentences.

Once quiet, safe rural areas were a haven of security where rural residents could leave their home or barn unlocked and rarely worry about the consequences. But in recent years rural communities, especially farms and ranches, have been a target of criminals who are often lured into taking advantage of sparsely populated areas and less law enforcement patrolled areas.

Favorite targets for rural thieves seem to be farm equipment and livestock, but a significant number of thefts being reported are of crops, like bundled tree nuts, which are becoming more common, industry and law enforcement officials say. Also high on the list in recent years are farm and ranch vehicles, like trucks and trailers, and even guns kept inside farm and ranch homes.

Bill introduced

California Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) introduced Senate Bill 224, which passed the Senate floor last month. The legislation seeks to help rural law enforcement and farmers in fighting back against rural crimes, a measure she says is needed as rural crime rates continue to rise.

Grove notes that in Tulare County alone, in 2018 over $1 million in rural theft was reported. She said her bill would create a new category of crime grand theft of agricultural property — that would help rural law enforcement agencies track agricultural crime and hopefully would lead to better investigations and convictions.

She said the bill would also increase sentencing and fine limits for agricultural crimes, a measure supporters believe could serve as a deterrent to rising crimes against rural Californians.

In an op-ed article published in the Visalia Times-Delta recently, Grove noted agricultural theft includes but is not limited to commodities like produce, livestock, or equipment such as harvesters, all-terrain vehicles, “or other mechanical machines,” and crops in general.

In recent years, thieves have stolen entire truckloads of crops that were intended for delivery to processors. For instance, Tehama County sheriff’s officials in 2012 reported that two truckloads of walnuts valued at more than $300,000 were taken from Northern California plants after a driver presented bogus paperwork.

“My legislation would offer necessary help to law enforcement and farmers. When criminals steal from our hardworking farmers, they also steal from the pocketbooks of Californians,” Grove noted in a recent press release in support of the bill.

The bill, which now faces a June 11 hearing before the Assembly Public Safety Committee, would redirect agricultural crime fines to be redistributed to current agriculture and rural-based crime prevention programs.

Grove partnered with Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux to create SB 224, a joint effort that she says included law enforcement insights into developing rural challenges.

Grove noted that individuals who farm in California are already making a large investment into the business of growing food and commodities. For one, rural land “costs two and a half times more than the national average,” and the cost of transporting agricultural products is higher because of the elevated cost of fuel and tougher environmental laws in the state.

The bill has enjoyed unanimous approval by two Senate committees and now has the support of the Senate floor. Assembly approval would send the bill to Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose signature, Grove says she hopes will come sooner than later.

For more news on tree nuts as reported by growers and farm advisors, subscribe to the Tree Nut Farm Press e-newsletter.

TAGS: Legislative
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