Program would tackle ag thefts

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Farmers and ranchers on the Big Island concerned about the impact of agricultural theft on their business operations could get help in the coming year thanks to legislation currently proposed in the state House of Representatives.

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Farmers and ranchers on the Big Island concerned about the impact of agricultural theft on their business operations could get help in the coming year thanks to legislation currently proposed in the state House of Representatives.

Introduced by Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-Hilo, House Bill 1996 calls for the state Department of Agriculture to create a two-year pilot program for Hawaii County that focuses on investigating and prosecuting theft and vandalism.

Tsuji, who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture, said that in 2004, the most recent year available for statistics, statewide agricultural theft caused farmers losses of $11.5 million.

“Of that, $4 million was attributed to the county of Hawaii,” he said.

The pilot effort would track convictions for the two offenses as well as locations where they are most prevalent, identify best practices for prevention and prosecution, and ultimately make recommendations for developing a statewide program.

Bill Walter, president of W.H. Shipman Ltd. in Keaau, described agricultural theft as a “horrendous problem” locally and statewide. W.H. Shipman leases out more than 4,000 acres of farmland in the Puna area.

“We have one farmer here in Keaau who from what I understand lost, in 2015, some $50,000 worth of equipment,” Walter said. “It can be both equipment and product, and they (the thieves) typically cause a fair amount of damage along the way.”

“We’re so rural, we have such a huge land mass,” said Rep. Cindy Evans, D-North Kona, North Kohala, South Kohala, one of the bill’s cosigners. “We have heard from people that it’s very hard … to have a physical presence to stop some of this stuff.”

Farmers rely on everything from security cameras to dogs to fencing to stop thieves. But the need for elements often integral to farming — stretches of open land located in isolated areas, for example — means the best deterrents can still fail.

Walter described the case of one older farmer who had been growing taro on a large plot of Shipman land.

“He’d be out working on his taro, and at the (other) end of his farm you could see people on an ATV ripping him off,” Walter said. “How is he supposed to get there that fast?”

Tsuji said small farmers are hit particularly hard by theft, but often feel they can’t spare the time to report crimes.

The pilot program would also, in partnership with Hawaii County, create a new enforcement officer position within the prosecuting attorney’s office.

“They would be in the position to respond (to theft) more quickly because that’s all that was on their agenda,” Walter said.

Evans said the program also would address how to recover stolen goods or equipment, since people often end up trying to sell what they took.

“People are stealing them because there may be business in selling the parts and the vehicle,” said Eric Tanouye, president of the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association and owner of Green Point Nurseries in Hilo. “This is not subsistence theft, we’re at that level of semi-commercial theft.”

Green Point Nurseries has had five trucks and one trailer stolen in the past few years, he said. He’s had to make sure someone is posted on the property at all times, even at night, to deter thieves.

“For a lot of our members of HFNA, not everybody can afford to do that, which is a concern for us,” Tanouye said.

The pilot program would be exclusive to Hawaii County, but has already drawn support from other areas: the Maui County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney submitted testimony in favor of the measure earlier this week, noting “practical solutions and procedures to best deal with these types of issues” were “desperately needed.”

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“It’s a big deal,” Evans said. “It needs to be talked out (to) see what’s practical and what’s enforceable.”

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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