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Farm Watch | Spring 2006 Out Here Magazine

Stan Azevedo got his stolen tools back because he engraved them through the Farm Watch identification program, which is one way to counter rural theft.

Rural anti-crime program keeps thieves at bay

By Renee Elder

Photography by Ron Holman

Theft and other crimes are less likely when neighbors watch out for each other, but keeping a neighborly eye out can be a challenge for rural residents.

"Things are just more spread out," says Stan Azevedo, who runs a commercial hay-baling operation and grows feed crops on hundreds of acres in Kings County, Calif. "The nature of agriculture is that you are working out in open fields. If you leave your equipment parked there overnight, it's pretty accessible."

Along with tractors and other farm equipment, thieves have stolen personal vehicles, tools, chemicals, diesel fuel, and much more from homes, barns, and fields.

Crime can be a problem in this state's rural areas, says Lou Barrett, who is part of the San Joaquin (CA) Valley's Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network. Barrett's team tracks and investigates crime in the eight-county area, where items valued at more than $10 million were stolen last year.

While law enforcement officials track down criminals, rural neighbors can also protect themselves by forming a Farm Watch program, country cousin to the Neighborhood Watch program.

Meeting monthly or as circumstances warrant, Farm Watch members adopt crime-prevention measures while keeping an eye out for unfamiliar vehicles or suspicious activities and staying in touch with the local sheriff or police.

"Anything that increases communication with local law enforcement is going to help," says Elisa Noble, coordinator of rural health and safety for the California Farm Bureau. "When these types of crime are reported, officials can get an idea of what is happening and where it is happening. That will often result in more resources being devoted to that area and to more arrests and convictions."

The California Farm Bureau offers this advice for establishing a Farm Watch in your area:

  • Plan the first meeting in a home or other informal setting. Invite your closest neighbors as well as a law enforcement officer or crime prevention specialist to discuss types of criminal activities that may be occurring in your area as well as tactics to prevent crime.
  • Select a Farm Watch coordinator and block captains. The coordinator works as point person for the group in dealing with law enforcement officials, as well as plans the group's meetings and projects. Block captains can serve as a link between members and the coordinator, work to recruit new members, and designate specific tasks for residents within his or her area.
  • Ask all participants in the Farm Watch to learn to recognize their neighbors as well as their neighbors' vehicles. They should also maintain a map of the area with addresses and phone numbers of Farm Watch members, regularly attend meetings, and follow guidelines for making their home and equipment as burglary-proof as possible, including permanently marking property for identification.

With population growth, traditionally urban problems are moving closer to farming areas. However, Farm Watch can improve the odds for rural residents, says Azevedo, who credits the group's strategies for helping him recover stolen tools and parts.

Thanks to ongoing communication with area residents, the local detective had good information about potential suspects. And because the items were marked through the Farm Watch identification program, Azevedo's possessions were recovered rather quickly.

"We found the stolen property and I was able to ID my tools and toolboxes," Azevedo says. "That saved me several hundred dollars' worth of stuff."

Renee Elder is a freelance writer in Raleigh, NC.