Business

Crime watch grows on farms

About 120 farmers keep tabs on activity over 100 square miles.
About 120 farmers keep tabs on activity over 100 square miles. Modesto Bee

BALLICO -- Enough was enough for people who farm in this area east of Turlock.

They had enough of the trespassing, the trash dumping, the livestock rustling and the theft of copper wire from irrigation pumps.

So they started a neighborhood watch in September 2005, recruiting members in a 100-square-mile zone in eastern Stanislaus and Merced counties.

The group, now about 120 strong, does more than watch. Members call and send e-mails about incidents and suspicious people. They take photos if they have cameras handy. And they work with sheriff's deputies, who would be hard-pressed to handle this remote area on their own.

"We're just more eyes for the sheriff's office," said Barbara Rouse of Hooker Grain Co. near Hickman, one of the committee members.

The group is called Barmont Neighborhood Watch. The name is a blend of Barfield and Montpelier, two early settlements in the area.

The group is one of the most well-organized in Stanislaus County, said Deputy Tim Reed, who oversees the Neighborhood Watch program for the sheriff's office.

He cited the communication via meetings and newsletters and the range of members, including electrical utilities and people involved in several kinds of agriculture.

"They've done a fantastic job incorporating not only their crew but Merced's sheriff's office and our sheriff's office," Reed said.

The group provides members with free signs warning that intruders are being watched. It trains them to provide detailed descriptions and to better secure their property.

Each road has a resident who is assigned to gather information about incidents. No dues are charged, but donations are welcome.

Copper theft might risk crops

The biggest problem is the theft of copper wire, which can be sold at recycling centers for high prices these days. In the five weeks before Christmas 2007, about two dozen copper thefts were reported in the area, which stretches east from Hickman Road.

Without the wiring, the pumps can't water the crops in the summer or provide the relatively warm groundwater that protects trees from frost in winter.

"If they were to steal a pump on a certain night, our whole crop could be lost," said committee member Rose Burroughs, an almond and dairy farmer.

Dumping riles the residents, too. They have found appliances and furniture, and even dogs and roosters with injuries from organized fights.

Grower Ted Thorn told of toxic chemicals from a methamphetamine lab dumped on top of newly harvested almonds that were still on the ground.

The area has had thefts of processed nuts, which can be worth $100,000 per tractor- trailer load.

Thieves have taken boxes of honey bees, as well. Brought in for almond pollination, the service can cost more than

$300 per acre each February.

On top of the property losses are the many hours the residents spend in crime prevention efforts. On the other hand, the program has brought this spacious neighborhood together.

"Two years ago, half of us didn't know each other," committee member Cassie Olson said.

One other thing: These aren't vigilantes. They leave the confrontations and arrests to the sheriff's deputies.

"We don't challenge," said Rouse of Hooker Grain. "We observe and report. We're spies."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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