Diesel pick-up trucks, trailers, welders, generators, batteries, compressors, tools, livestock, fruit — virtually anything that tweakers (meth addicts) can sell, scrap or recycle for cash is being stolen from Hawaii farmers.
In talking with farmers around the Islands, they all echoed common complaints about rampant agricultural theft, trespassing and what they see as police departments not especially concerned about such crimes.
One Oahu farmer told of driving to his field in preparation for harvest, only to find the batteries stolen from his fork lifts. By the time he changed out the batteries, he'd lost a half-day of production. Big Island farmers spoke of thieves jacking up farm equipment to rip off $11,000 worth of tires, and blatantly knocking down an entire wall of a building in order to nab the ATVs stored inside.
The farmers are vulnerable because most do not live on their land, giving thieves high on ice the entire night to carry out their burglaries. But even those who do live on-site are not immune. One Oahu woman told of chasing a guy from her backyard in broad daylight. When she called police, they scolded her, saying "don't you dare run after the guy."
Others spoke of calling the cops, only to be told the police had other priorities. Or if the cops do take a report, the farmers are told it's nearly impossible to prove that stolen fruit belongs to them. One farmer was able to match the top cut from one of his pineapples to the whole fruit, only to have an officer shrug and say it wasn't sufficient evidence.
Banana, luau leaf, lychee and longan are some of the most frequently targeted crops, with the hot produce sold to vendors who peddle the wares at farmers' markets. Though the markets typically have rules to prevent the sale of stolen property, they aren't enforced, farmers say.
In short, farmers are losing big time, with one Puna District grower suffering losses of $60,000 in uninsured property this year alone.
With many farmers already surviving on the margins, the thefts represent a significant threat to their viability. But though we often hear of cops cracking down on thefts from rental cars and vacation rental properties, the plight of farmers is generally ignored.
As a result, many of them have stopped reporting the crimes.
Farmers were unanimous in fingering druggies, some of whom are former employees who know the operations, and then return to steal. This is linked to another common problem that farmers face: a shortage of farm labor has them often hiring guys who never graduated high school and can't get any other jobs, but have no work ethic or interest in steady employment.
“It just goes on and on and on,” one farmer said.
“It's always been occurring, but it's just getting worse and worse,” added another farmer.
Farmers also report reoccurring problems with trespassers, who come onto their land to hunt, vandalize or just hang out. Locks are broken, gates are knocked down, fences are cut. Some farmers are beginning to instal security systems, but that also represents an outlay of time and money that many do not have.
In response, legislators are considering House Bill 1996, which creates a two-year pilot program on the Big Island to focus on investigating and prosecuting agricultural theft and vandalism.
The bill, which has passed the House Finance Committee, calls for partnering with the county of Hawaii to hire an enforcement officer within the prosecuting attorney's office or any other law enforcement agency to:
Identify the number of convictions for agricultural theft and agricultural vandalism;
Identify best practices for prosecuting perpetrators of agricultural theft and agricultural vandalism;
Identify areas where agricultural theft and agricultural vandalism are most prevalent;
Identify best practices for preventing agricultural theft and agricultural vandalism; and
Make recommendations for a statewide program to address agricultural theft and agricultural vandalism no later than Dec. 31, 2017.
The bill, if ultimately adopted — and most important, funded — could prove helpful in addressing the problem. Still, it's just another bandaid on the open, weeping sore that is Hawaii's ice epidemic.
I remain bewildered that certain politicians and activists are focusing so much attention on the perceived threat of Island agriculture while ignoring the documented danger of crystal methamphetamine addiction.
Speaking of real and perceived threats, a poorly researched article by Associated Press reporter Cathy Bussewitz is making the national rounds — including a pathetic rehash by Hawaii News Now.
Titled “Battling outbreak, Hawaii faces small staff, pesticide fears,” it tells of how some organic farmers on the Big Island are refusing to allow state officials to spray for mosquitoes spreading dengue fever:
But state efforts to combat the outbreak — and prevent the related Zika virus from making inroads on the island — could put these farmers out of business. Posting "no spray" signs on their properties, they're pushing back on the use of pesticides to kill the mosquitoes that transmit both infections.
On Old Ways Farm, organic farmer Steve Mann tends to his herbs with mosquito netting dangling from his straw hat. Neighbors have been infected with dengue, but Mann wouldn't allow his home or farm to be sprayed with pesticides.
"It's not organic, and that would cancel our certification for a period of three years," Mann said. "That might well put us out of business."
What Bussewitz fails to report is that the organic rules have an exemption for such situations. Section §205.672 states:
When a prohibited substance is applied to a certified operation due to a Federal or State emergency pest or disease treatment program and the certified operation otherwise meets the requirements of this part, the certification status of the operation shall not be affected as a result of the application of the prohibited substance: Provided, that: (a) Any harvested crop or plant part to be harvested that has contact with a prohibited substance applied as the result of a Federal or State emergency pest or disease treatment program cannot be sold, labeled, or represented as organically produced.”
So Mann could indeed sell his crop, though not as organic produce, and his certification would not be in jeopardy.