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Battling crime in the vineyards


Sometime early this winter, probably at night, thieves snuck into the vineyard below Jim Lovell's Russian River Valley house and made off with 450 brass sprinklers.

Like other farm equipment, including wind machine motors and water pump radiators, thieves target such irrigation parts for their metal, which can be sold to salvage yards or recyclers for cash.

For Lovell, a vineyard operations coordinator for St. Francis Vineyards and Winery, the theft, left undiscovered, could have jeopardized 30 acres of prime chardonnay grapes this spring, when he depends on water delivered by the sprinklers to protect the budding crop from frost.

"It was out of the clear blue sky," Lovell said of the theft. Equipment has been stolen before, he said, including sprinklers and radiators, but nothing on this scale. "It was pretty shocking."

Growers, ranchers and farmers across Sonoma County report similar troubles. They range from fuel siphoned out of farm equipment to stolen tools, tractors or even missing crops and livestock.

A drop in metal prices brought a brief dip in thefts the past two years. But prices are heading back up at a time when budget cuts are limiting the number of investigators. And that's sent agriculture officials across the state asking for help.

Concern among Sonoma County farmers about the level of attention given to ag-crime surfaced late last year, when county Farm Bureau representatives met with Sonoma County sheriff's officials to push for a return to dedicated ag-crime officers.

More than five years ago, Sonoma County lost several of those officers through retirement or reassignment. Since then, ag-crime investigations have been folded into regular patrol duties, a budget-conscious move seen in departments across the state, according to Noelle Cremers, an ag-crime specialist and director with the California Farm Bureau.

"They're scrambling to try to identify where to put their limited resources," Cremers said of such decisions by law enforcement agencies.

Earlier this year, Sheriff Bill Cogbill responded to the request from the local Farm Bureau by ordering the revival of part-time ag-crime assignments for a detective and a deputy. The so-called "collateral assignments" are in addition to the pair's regular duties and do not require extra funding, according to Sgt. Glenn Lawrence, who oversees property crimes investigations for the sheriff's department.

That's good news for farmers like Lovell. His workers noticed the missing irrigation parts in January and replaced the equipment with plastic sprinklers before the threat of frost on new buds arrived. The cost, including labor, totaled more than $8,000. Cost of lost crops could have totaled $300,000, he said.

Investigators scoured salvage yards throughout the Bay Area but the thieves were never caught.

The special ag-crime assignments give farmers two liaisons who'll be familiar with issues affecting them, said Capt. Matt McCaffrey, a department spokesman.

"It allows a little bit more interest, a bit more special training" for the detective and deputy, McCaffrey said.

"We're very pleased," Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said about the revival of the assignments. "(The officers) can be a focal point for people dealing with rural crime."

Last year, a total of 17 farm-related crimes were reported in Sonoma County. In 2008 there were 15 cases. Those figures are down from previous years which saw between 20 and 28 cases reported annually, according to Lawrence.

Both law enforcement and ag-crime experts attribute the decline to a slide in scrap metal prices, especially copper and brass, which were common targets of thieves. Both metals were at their peak price in mid-2008. Over subsequent months, copper prices dropped 63 percent and brass prices 74 percent.

Both values, however, are now on the rebound. As thieves look to cash in, farmers said they the hope the sheriff's department's tighter focus on agriculture will help keep a lid on crime.

Pete Opatz, who oversees thousands of acres of vineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties for Silverado Premium Properties, said he hopes the effort will encourage farmers and growers themselves to be more vigilant.

Last spring, Opatz's workers discovered thieves had stolen the large-block Ford motors out of three wind machines parked in one of his Napa vineyards. Another three machines had their bolts loosened, likely in preparation for a repeat heist, Opatz said.

Authorities told him that the motors, at $5,400 apiece, were turning up in amateur sprint cars.

His motors were never found. Their theft, discovered just days before the intersection of bud break and frost season, could have jeopardized 24 acres of grapes, valued at $250,000, he said.

"It could have been a sizable owie," he said.

Now, the road leading to that vineyard has been gated and workers patrol the area at night.

"Some folks are just bound and determined to take what they want," he said. "Law enforcement seems to be doing a pretty good job (on farm thefts). Hopefully, they'll be educating people to keep an eye on things. Perhaps we can join in that effort."