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Farmers fight back against rural crimes

Pilot program in Dyer County forms coalition to deter theft, vandalism of agricultural property
By Allison Morgan 8/4/2014

 

Dyer County Sheriff Jeff Box affixes a Farm Watch warning sign to a barn on the farm of Shane Burchfiel in Dyersburg. The signs alert would-be criminals that this particular farm is among those participating in the producer-driven effort to fight back against rural crimes in the community.
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Sickening. That’s how Shane Burchfiel describes the feeling when he discovered one of the center-pivot irrigation systems on his Dyer County farm had been vandalized in the fall of 2012.

Senseless. That’s how he describes this type of crime that’s all too common on Tennessee farms.

“They stripped all the copper wiring, sliced open all the hoses, and just left them lying on the ground,” says Burchfiel. “This particular system had a power unit, so they also pumped all the diesel fuel out of the tank. It was an insurance claim over $10,000, just for someone to recoup $300 or $400.”

With the help of the local sheriff’s department, however, Burchfiel and other area farmers are fighting back against such crimes. They’ve banded together to create the Dyer County Farm Watch, a program designed to give producers information, assistance, and protection that will make it tougher for criminals to target their property.

“This was something we needed to protect our rural areas,” says Dyer County Sheriff Jeff Box.  “We don’t have the manpower to cover all 536 square miles of this county, and there were zones wide open to theft and vandalism. Law enforcement isn’t enough.”

Through a coalition of farmers, law enforcement, and local businesses, Farm Watch works on the same principles as the more widely known “neighborhood watch” programs in urban and suburban areas. Instead of cookie-cutter houses connected by sidewalks, however, these “neighborhoods” are farms spread miles apart and connected by close-knit rural residents.

“The same concept of neighbor looking out for neighbor works in the farming community,” says Box. “You see something that’s out of place, you call somebody. These farmers have a greater network in place than your regular neighborhoods. I guarantee if something comes up missing or vandalized on a farm, the news is going to spread like wildfire down at the corner market or café. Effective law enforcement depends on the information you have and the information you can obtain.”

In the past, Box says, theft and vandalism has been rampant in rural areas of Dyer County, where the local economy relies heavily on agriculture — generating some $165 million in 2013.  Most of these crimes involve vandalism of property or theft of anything valuable, like copper wiring from pivots and buildings, metal items, tools, farm equipment, fuel, and batteries. Oftentimes, explains the sheriff, the perpetrators are drug addicts stealing to support their habits.

To help combat these problems, Box introduced the Farm Watch concept at a Dyer County Farm Bureau meeting in December 2012, where Burchfiel and neighboring farmer Hunter Grills immediately jumped on board to help launch the program. The two serve on the Farm Watch committee along with farmers Jimmy Moody and Eric Maupin, retired insurance agent Randy Brooks, University of Tennessee Extension agent Tim Campbell, investigator Stoney Hughes, and Sheriff Box.

“Farmers around here have been fighting these guys for years, and we were ready for something like this to come along,” says Grills.  “We had a pivot that was vandalized, a spray coupe stolen, and a truck burned, and that’s what really kick-started my interest in this project.”

Since then, the committee has held informational meetings, sent letters to area farmers to encourage participation, implemented a text alert system, designed “Farm Watch” warning signs and decals, and developed a website and Facebook page. The program relies heavily on building relationships among local producers and educating them about security measures, such as surveillance systems, pivot alarms, and owner-applied numbers on equipment and tools. 

“It’s motivated us to look out for ourselves and take some initiative rather than play the victim card all the time,” says Burchfiel. “There’s a component of personal responsibility because there are some things we can do to protect ourselves and each other.”

On the law enforcement side, Box says the sheriff’s department monitors farm surveillance systems and alarms that are connected to the office, patrols rural areas more frequently, and stays in close contact with salvage facilities and recycling centers where criminals may try to sell stolen goods.

“We’re in communication with these places so much that we develop a rapport with them, which helps us even more,” he explains.  “Recently, there were thieves taking batteries off spray coupes and tractors, and when those calls started coming in, we started checking with the scrap yards. In a few minutes, we got a call back from one of them saying, ‘Hey, they’re here now!’ Our investigators went down there and actually caught those guys with the stuff they’d stolen.”

The Farm Watch program also has been garnering support from area businesses with a vested interest in reducing rural crimes in Dyer County. Gibson Farmers Cooperative was one of the first sponsors to join the cause.

“Farmers are our business, and we need to do anything we can to help protect their business,” says Gary Smith, manager of the Co-op’s Dyersburg branch.  “What I like about this program is that when people see that Farm Watch sign, they think someone’s watching, which may just be enough to deter them. And the general public sees those signs, too, alerting them to be more aware. It’s not just farmers but all our citizens and neighbors who want to stop these things from happening.”

Another staunch ally in the Farm Watch effort is the local Farm Bureau Insurance office in Dyersburg, where agent Kent Morris says agricultural crimes add up to substantial losses for his customers.

“Being an insurer of many farming operations, we see the large impact these crimes can have, not only through direct losses but also indirectly by way of lost production and critical time in the field,” says Morris.  “Our company alone pays for many losses on an annual basis, ranging from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. I see the Farm Watch program as a great opportunity to defend against these kinds of crimes.”

Even though it’s less than two years old, Box says the Farm Watch program is already working. Thefts and other rural crimes have fallen dramatically.

“We’re arresting more people and recovering more property than ever before,” he says.  “We’re going to keep adding security measures to make sure those crimes continue to decline.”

Even though this is the only formal Farm Watch in the state right now, similar programs could soon be implemented in other counties, says Max Thomas, supervisor of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Crimes Unit, which investigates wildfire arson, livestock theft, and other crimes on farms and state forest lands.  He says there’s been “a lot of interest” from other law enforcement officials, and the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association has even endorsed the Dyer County Farm Watch.

“We’re working to develop some type of uniform, statewide Farm Watch program, but we don’t have the details worked out yet,” says Thomas. “For one thing, the issues in Dyer County won’t be the same in every county, so each sheriff’s department will need to create a program specific for their needs, but we also need to see what parts and pieces we can standardize across the board.”

Seeing this local initiative reach the state level would be gratifying, says Burchfiel.

“We want this to be a pilot program that could work across the whole state and beyond,” he says.  “Hopefully, we can be a model to help other counties so they don’t make some of the same mistakes or spend as much time as we did getting this going.”

Next steps for the Dyer County Farm Watch include spreading the word about the program, gaining more participation from producers, and raising funds for signage, promotional materials, meetings, educational efforts, and even technology that could work hand-in-hand with law enforcement. Since the committee began accepting donations in March, some $25,000 has poured in from individuals and businesses. The ultimate goal, says Box, is to keep growing the program’s size and scope so that its success continues.

“What you’re going to have out of this Farm Watch program is one of the best things that’s hit this area in a long time to prevent rural crime,” says Box. “This is still in the infancy stages, but it’s growing every day. People are sick and tired of being victims, and I think it’s a program that you’re not going to be able to stop.”

For more information on the Farm Watch program, visit its website at www.dyercountyfarmwatch.com or “Like” its Facebook page.

 
 
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