Theft puts the ‘arm’ in ‘farmer’

As a farmer, Sherwood C. Conant knows the trepidation firsthand when the fence creaks from the weight of trespassers, and the dog’s knowing bark sounds the alarm.

At his Kilauea farm on this occasion, he is armed, which presents another set of potential problems.

Does he fire a warning shot, and risk being shot at himself by the unknown encroachers?

Luckily, on this black night, either the dog, Conant’s presence, a combination of those things, or something else, has scared off the intruder.

Conant, like many other Kaua’i farmers, does not live on the land he farms, and the thieves seem to know that, as he has been the victim of agricultural theft before, most notably a portion of his watermelon crop.

Also like most other farmers, Conant knows that getting crop insurance is prohibitively expensive to the point of not being realistic to have, and he isn’t even sure if insurance on his barn would cover the loss from theft of crops or equipment stored inside.

Perhaps because he relives that frightening nighttime scene in his mind with regularity, and definitely because the trespassers are out to get the fruits of his blood, sweat and tears, and he like other farmers is proud of what he grows, and some even make a full-time living at it, Conant gets very emotional when he discusses the problem of agricultural theft on Kaua’i.

“Now, farmers are carrying guns, and they’re afraid that those thieves, trespassers, also have guns. Hopefully we can stop this thing before it becomes the wild, wild west,” said Conant, who is also an agricultural commodities marketing specialist with the state Department of Agriculture Commodities Branch, Quality Assurance Division.

Part of his new job is to make people aware of the problem of agricultural theft, and if he can’t stop the thieves themselves, he at least wants to make buyers and shippers of Kaua’i-grown produce aware of anti-agricultural-theft laws.

The laws, technically pertaining to the ownership and movement of agricultural commodities, require those offering local produce for sale to be able to prove that they own that produce, he said.

Certificates of ownership are required for those who possess or transport produce in excess of 25 pounds, or with value of $100 or more. Certificates of ownership can be invoices, receipts, bills of lading or similar documents that show the name of the seller, owner, buyer or designee, origin of the product (name and address of the farm, for example), and destination of the product (name and address of the buyer or receiver).

The certificates provide the start of a paper trail, and allow both state Department of Agriculture and local law-enforcement officials the opportunity to arrest suspected agricultural thieves if they don’t have certificates and there is other probable cause indicating the produce is stolen.

“People are always paranoid about getting ripped off,” said Conant. “It’s tough enough for farmers to make it as it is,” without factoring agricultural theft into the equation, he said. “It’s a borderline profession.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Linda Lingle signed into law two bills to further help deter agricultural theft, a multi-million-dollar problem statewide. One of the laws decreased the commodity pounds from 200 to 25 where certificates of ownership are necessary, and the other made trespassing on agricultural land a misdemeanor that could lead to arrest of trespassers if no-trespassing signs are posted.

The problem with agricultural theft, even with the new laws, is one of enforcement, or lack thereof, Conant said.

While Kaua’i Police Department records may show cases of agricultural theft on the island, Conant is certain that many farmers don’t report thefts, because they don’t think anything can be done about it.

Sadly, too, it is those hooked on drugs who often resort to stealing agricultural commodities and equipment off isolated island farms, to sell those stolen goods in order to acquire more drugs, or to trade for drugs, he noted.

“Ag theft is a problem on Kaua’i,” said Conant. It is also trespassing.

He is waging war on the thieves, organizing leaders with the Kauai County Farm Bureau, talking with KPD officials, and discussing the problem and laws with owners and operators of restaurants, wholesale companies, retail stores, shipping companies like Young Brothers, Aloha Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Matson Navigation Company, and others, he said.

Conant envisions a network where, if a farmer finds out he’s been ripped off, he can immediately get on the phone with police and others, who will alert shippers, restaurateurs, wholesalers, retailers, operators of roadside produce stands and booths at the county Sunshine Markets, and others, to be on the lookout for the hot commodities.

“We want to make it harder for the perpetrator,” he said.

The certificate requirement makes sellers responsible for proving they own the commodity, or are in possession of it legally, and protects the buyers from buying stolen commodities, he explained.

A meeting of members of the Kauai County Farm Bureau to discuss the problem of agricultural theft is set for Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 5:30 p.m. at the Kauai Veterans Center on Kapule Highway in Lihu’e.

For more information, please call Conant, 274-3069, or e-mail him at sherwood.c.conant@hawaii.gov.

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