Farmers Bedeviled : Thieves Now Cultivating Bean Fields

Times Staff Writer

The chief of the garbanzo bean task force was on routine patrol on the rural roads of the Salinas Valley when the call crackled over his radio. A sheriff's deputy on stakeout in a garbanzo bean field reported that a suspicious vehicle parked nearby had sped off as he approached.

The task force leader, Monterey County Sheriff's Sgt. Joe Anzini, gunned his engine and gave chase. After a brief pursuit, he pulled the car over. Anzini and another officer questioned the driver for several minutes as night fell and a hard wind kicked up little cyclones of dust on the desolate rural road. The officers finally received permission to search the trunk.

"Beer, beer and more beer," Anzini muttered, as he examined the contents. "Shopping bags and more shopping bags. But no garbanzo beans."

Losses Quadruple

Anzini speculated that the men were scared off by the deputy before they had a chance to raid the fields. They probably will return another night, he said, to bedevil the garbanzo bean farmer.

Crop rustlers are plaguing California farmers, and rural law enforcement agencies are using such methods as stakeouts, task forces and sting operations to protect the fields. About $50 million worth of agricultural products in the state were stolen last year from fields and packing plants, estimated Rick Griego, president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force. The losses, he said, have quadrupled over the last five years.

Thieves steal almost anything that grows in the ground.

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley hired helicopter-borne security officers to guard their drying grapes from raisin raiders. Monterey County sheriff's deputies routinely patrol the fields around Castroville because artichokes--which wholesale for as much as $1 each during the off-season--are so frequently pilfered.

Hot Avocados

Avocado theft was such a problem in Santa Barbara County that the Sheriff's Department set up a sting operation and prosecuted several restaurant owners for buying hot avocados. And farmers throughout the state sprinkle a confetti-like substance to mark their hay because thieves not only steal stacked hay but are hijacking hay trucks.

"We're not talking about Mr. Jones taking some vegetables for his family," said Deputy William Spears of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. "These people are making off with enormous quantities and selling the stuff."

Crop rustling is not confined to California, Griego said. Soybean farmers in Georgia, grapefruit growers in Texas, corn farmers in Nebraska and melon growers in Florida all report increases in theft.

Most people who live in cities are oblivious to rural theft, Griego said. Their concept of crime is limited to hold-ups, rapes and murders.

When farmers are ripped off, however, those in the city also suffer: They pay higher prices in the supermarket.

With the price of fruit and vegetables escalating, crop rustlers have little difficulty finding markets. Many unload their products at produce markets in Los Angeles or in the Bay Area, and some sell to local merchants or at flea markets. In an attempt to cut down on the theft, legislation recently has been proposed in California to require anyone possessing more than 200 pounds of produce to have a bill of sale.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to curb agricultural theft. As small family farms disappear and as enormous corporate farms encompassing thousands of acres proliferate, deputies in rural areas have difficulty keeping up with the thieves.

When a garbanzo bean crime wave broke out in Monterey County last summer, the sheriff's substation in King City (about 45 miles south of Salinas) was overwhelmed. Only four deputies work the evening shift and they cover about 2,000 square miles. After farmers spotted thieves in action and called the sheriff, it often took deputies up to 30 minutes to get there. The thieves usually were long gone.

"People were ripping off the plants night and day," Anzini said. "They'd go in and just decimate the field. One field had so many bald spots it looked like the back of a mangy dog."

Easy to Store

Thieves steal enormous quantities, Anzini said, because garbanzo beans do not have to be immediately refrigerated, as some vegetables do. They store the plants in garages and sell them at flea markets for a nice profit--five plants for a dollar. Most city residents sample garbanzo beans only at salad bars, but in rural Monterey County the beans often are eaten right out of the pod like peanuts or boiled in water and salted.

Anzini initiated a "tactical action plan" last summer to deal with the problem. He equipped his deputies with binoculars and set up a stakeout schedule, alerted the district attorney to ensure aggressive prosecution and told farmers to call the substation at the first sign of trouble. Anzini's plan initially was met with some derision and skepticism.

"Some people started calling me 'Sgt. Garbanzo,' and I got quite a few snickers after I set up the plan," he said. "I guess crimes in produce are not as macho as crimes in progress."

Anzini shrugged and said, somewhat wistfully, that when he was hired by the Sheriff's Department 13 years ago, he envisioned himself chasing bank robbers, not staking out bean fields. "But I still get pride out of cutting down crime . . . any kind of crime."

During a 12-day period last summer, right after the task force was formed, 13 people were cited or arrested and fined up to $1,000 and placed on probation. This summer the number of arrests and amount of theft has been reduced, Anzini said, and he attributed it largely to the efficacy of the task force.

Arrogant, Brazen Thieves

Garbanzo bean thieves are especially arrogant and brazen, said David Gonzales, foreman at Pat Perry Farms. Gonzales often patrols the fields and has been threatened numerous times.

"One night I caught some guys who had over 300 plants in their back seat," Gonzales said. "I told them they were trespassing, and the guy in the back seat grabs his shotgun, tells me I'm lucky to be alive and starts threatening me. I've never been so scared in my life. I told my boss to stop raising these things. They're just too much trouble. But this last year the sheriff has helped out a lot."

Pat Perry, who farms 120 acres of garbanzo beans and loses several thousand dollars a year to theft, high-stepped through a field, snapped off a stalk and rolled a few beans in his palm. Then he spat a stream of chewing tobacco in a furrow and said, "It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen. They're crazy for these beans. Nothing stops them."

Avocado pirates are just as voracious, said Detective Ed Skehan of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. Last week, he said, a farmer reported a theft of 2,500 pounds of avocados. Thieves with gunny sacks simply park along the frontage roads late at night, Skehan said, and in a relatively short time they can fill a car trunk or the back of a pickup truck with avocados.

Some steal thousands in one fell swoop by raiding the bins that are ready to be shipped.

Hot Avocado Sting

When the price of avocados was at its peak several years ago, and farmers were losing about $500,000 a year to thieves, the Sheriff's Department set up a sting operation. Undercover officers who were wired for sound approached a number of restaurant owners and offered to sell them hot avocados. Two restaurant owners and a chef were convicted of attempting to receive stolen property and were fined.

Because it is so difficult for deputies to guard the endless acres of farmland, many ranchers patrol at night after working all day. During the peak season for artichokes, Gene Boggiatto cruises his 400 acres in Castroville with a pistol on the seat and a powerful searchlight by the window.

"I've been in the business 44 years, and there always has been a certain amount of theft," he said. "But nothing like this. One of the other growers lost a whole field in one night; they just went in and wiped everything out. That's 10 acres of 'chokes."

In an attempt to curb the theft, the Rural Crime Prevention Task Force gives seminars, works with local law enforcement agencies and offers crime prevention tips to farmers. The task force, financed by law enforcement agencies and agricultural organizations, also helps farmers reduce the theft of heavy equipment and chemicals.

Not an 'Eye-Opener'

"A hold-up in the city is more of an eye-opener to most people than the tank of pesticides or the 3,000 melons Farmer Joe lost," Griego said. "Even farmers didn't address the problem for a while. The country life style is a little more relaxed, so they often get around to doing things slower. And that includes reporting theft."

Farmers in the Salinas Valley are quicker now, however, to report problems as a result of the garbanzo bean task force. And Anzini faces the Sisyphean task of trying to accommodate all the farmers in the valley.

He recently has been deluged with phone calls. The corn nut farmers tell him that 20% of their crop is being pilfered. The chili farmers want their fields staked out. Lettuce and cabbage growers complain about roadside poachers.

Although the deputies who stake out garbanzo bean fields have been ribbed by other officers, they know the farmers appreciate their work, said Deputy Allen Wheelus, who was parked behind a grove of trees at the edge of a field. There is not much difference, Wheelus said, between arresting a bean thief on a rural road and nabbing a burglar on a city street. Theft, he said, is theft.

Wheelus then climbed back into his car, slipped on a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses to cut the glare and scanned the distance for garbanzo bean thieves.

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