Morton Bassan checked a section of razor wire that he installed to keep thieves out of his Kau, Hawaii, orchard. Stolen farm and construction equipment amounts to an estimated loss of $1 billion annually across the country. Add to that tens of millions of dollars in thefts of actual produce from farms and farmers say they have an epidemic on their hands.

Farm Theft

Thieves are making off
with everything from crops
to equipment, frustrating
isle farmers

VOLCANO >> Lance Yamashiro's exotic crops of wasabi and Japanese radishes used to attract the attention only of chefs and grocers.

But Yamashiro's produce has caught the eye of a new breed of food enthusiasts -- thieves.

Mounting problem

Theft of farm produce and equipment is a growing problem in Hawaii, and the rest of the country.

>> Stolen farm and construction equipment amounts to an estimated loss of $1 billion a year nationwide.
>> Equipment and produce theft amounts to around $1 million in losses each year on the Big Island alone.

Source: Associated Press

Hawaii farmers are finding their wares endangered not only by what nature dishes out, but also by criminals capitalizing on weaknesses in rural security and making off with everything from bananas to bees, pesticides to plows.

"Mother Nature's been hitting us hard," said Yamashiro, who has lost both crops and equipment on his 100-acre farm to theft. "If the human factor sets in and hits us harder, I'm going to have to lay off employees."

It is not just Hawaii; stolen farm and construction equipment amounts to an estimated loss of $1 billion annually across the country. Add to that tens of millions of dollars in thefts of actual produce from farms and farmers say they have an epidemic on their hands.

"To them, it's 'what's a banana?' or 'what's a papaya?' " said Yamashiro, who said he's hit by thieves an average of twice a month. "But when the market is really short and we're getting premium dollar, it hurts."

Hawaii's agricultural capital is here on the Big Island, which is also the state's center of farm theft. Varied crops, from Kona coffee to rambutan, cover nearly a million acres. Theft on that land amounts to around $1 million in losses each year, Alan Takemoto of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation estimates.

The toll is evident in places like Morton Bassan's property, south of here in Naalehu.

Riding through the fields in his Chevy Tracker, Bassan slams on the brakes.

"Oh, here's an orange," he exclaims, seemingly far too excited for a citrus farmer with 152 acres of trees. "Maybe it was too ugly for them."

Bassan's farm was free from thieves during his first 15 years of operation. He said problems started in 1994 and escalated to incredible levels.

"We couldn't figure out why we weren't getting a normal crop," he said.

He tried everything: A double set of 7-foot-high barbed-wire fences surrounding his land. Security cameras, armed guards, even nail boards hidden in the grass.

Nothing stopped bandits from making off with hundreds of thousands of oranges, he said, and production dropped from more than 75,000 cases of oranges during the 1997-98 season to fewer than 5,000 cases this past season.

Lance Yamashiro, a third-generation farmer, showed off his dogs on his farm in Volcano, Hawaii, earlier this month. Yamashiro has installed alarm systems, security cameras and also depends on low-tech security, such as his dogs, to help guard his farm from thieves.

Other farmers say Bassan's claims are exaggerated; there's little way for police to tell. Regardless, he's given up, laid off all his employees and is preparing to subdivide his property and put it up for sale.

"They're not going to stop until there's nothing else here," he said.

Brazen thieves have pulled off heists on farms throughout Hawaii and around the country. Orange trees -- 2,000 of them in a single night -- were uprooted in Tulare County, Calif. Chemical fertilizer thefts throughout the country have been attributed to illegal methamphetamine labs.

"Anything that can be converted to cash is a target," said Vern Inouye, the owner of Floral Resources/ Hawaii, whose Pahoa farm was robbed of as many as 2,000 anthuriums in a single recent heist.

"Thieves are creative, so we have to stay creative," said Diane Ley, a deputy on the state Board of Agriculture. "It keeps shifting, just like the weather."

Many farmers say they've increased security, from dogs to high-tech. Yamashiro added about $5,000 in security cameras and other equipment -- but it, too, was stolen.

"Their property is so huge it's very hard to maintain any kind of control over it," said Lt. Steven Guillermo, of the Big Island police.

Even on small farms, though, it can be tough to keep thieves out. Prowlers used to target Bob Peters' one-acre macadamia nut farm in Naalehu when he went out for the day.

"The whole field would get cleared," he said.

Aside from the hurdles of securing a large piece of property, farm theft is tough to prove and even tougher to prosecute.

"There's no proof of title that goes along with a basketful of apples," said Robert Thompson, a Kansas City, Mo., attorney specializing in agricultural law who also has a grain and cattle farm.

Ley said the state Department of Agriculture plans to launch a pilot program this summer, pairing members of her staff with police, prosecutors and farmers. Participants will educate vendors on stolen food and visit stores and farmers' markets and may request receipts to prove the legitimate purchase of produce.

It's a step in the right direction, says Ulf Wiel-Berggren, who is frustrated that vendors at the Hilo Farmer's Market keep buying from those who show up with duffels or garbage bags full of cheap produce.

"When somebody comes here with stolen fruit, you see it or you feel it," said Wiel-Berggren, who has lost everything from avocados to hand tools to thieves.

Wiel-Berggren said it is disheartening to see the fruits -- literally -- of one's labor disappear.

"You look at these avocados," he said. "Almost ready, almost ready -- and then they're gone."


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