Shining a light on crops, crooks & cameras
By Geoff Geddes
Though there’s often a fine line between right and wrong, some distinctions are clear:
Dumping your household trash in a farmer’s ditch: Bad.
Strolling through the park: Nice.
Stomping over someone’s crops: Not so much.
As if weather, disease and pests weren’t enough to handle, many producers must now contend with theft, trespassing and vandalism on farm. It’s a growing problem in some areas, and one with no easy answers.
“Farm security is becoming a big issue in rural communities that have a lot of poverty,” reports Sean Rosen, sales manager of RosTech Technologies.
Based in Saint-Laurent, Que., the company offers a range of surveillance and security options for crop and livestock farmers and others in the agriculture sector.
“Many thefts happen in broad daylight right under the farmer’s nose, when he or she is out plowing the field,” says Rosen.
“Intruders go into the shed or barn and steal tools, fuel, tractors, trucks or anything they can get their hands on, often to get money for drugs.
“One out of four thefts are people they know; neighbours or employees who have knowledge of where a farmer will be at certain times.”
Rosen also hears many complaints regarding trespassing in farm fields, whether it’s ATVs, motorcycles and dirt bikes for trail riding or snowmobiles in the winter.
Concerns around rising rural crime are supported by recent numbers being compiled across the country.
In a 2017 report by Statistics Canada, the police-reported crime rate in rural areas was 23 per cent higher than the urban crime rate.
One of the farmer faces behind the numbers is Spencer Fraser, a producer near Caledon, Ont. who grows winter wheat, garlic and honey on 53 acres.
What were they thinking?
“We have nothing but problems with trespassers,” says Fraser. “People hop the fence to pick garlic, picnic, dump garbage in our ditch or simply walk in to get shots with the fall colours.
“We even had a wedding party brazenly show up on our tree lined driveway to take their photos!
“We’ve started adding security cameras, posting ‘no trespassing’ signs everywhere and erecting a gate, all of which kind of spoil the relaxed farm ambiance, but they are a necessary evil.”
Apart from the expense and inconvenience, there is an emotional toll to consider.
“We are starting to feel unsafe and getting worried,” says Fraser. “I have a second job that often takes me off the farm, and based on what we are hearing, I worry about worst case scenarios like home invasions when my family is by themselves.”
Security is also an issue for Roy Newman, owner of a mixed farm east of Okotoks, Alta. that has been in the family for four generations. He has lost fuel, equipment, a hot water tank and his son’s quad, not to mention some sleep. With high grain prices of late, grain theft is also a problem for some of his neighbors.
“People can load up $30,000 worth of grain in 30 minutes and be gone before you know it,” says Newman.
Thefts have been constant, and he has become resigned to the reality.
“We are almost numb to it at this stage, and we find ourselves asking ‘what will we lose this year?’,” says Newman.
Though farmers carry insurance, Newman has a $5,000 deductible and rarely makes a claim for fear of seeing rates rise. Instead, he focuses on preventative measures to reduce the risk.
“We’re half an hour from the nearest police station, so a regular alarm that alerts the authorities won’t help,” says Newman. “We set up an alarm system in our shop with a loud siren and flashing lights to scare off thieves and send an alert to my brother and me.”
They installed a security system in their home, put gates in the backyard and engraved their brand on equipment so police can readily identify it. They also lock the fuel tanks and take keys out of vehicles, reminding their staff to do the same.
Take your best shots
Other farmers are going really high tech, with units like the PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) camera from RosTech Technologies that turns 360 degrees, records everything, zooms up to a quarter mile and sends a notification to your cell phone if there’s a security issue.
“Our entry level unit comes with one camera for $990, and you can add up to three more cameras at $399 each,” says Rosen. “It’s ideal for rural areas, as it creates its own Wi-Fi zone from your antennas, so no internet is needed to run the cameras.”
All their units are configured before they leave the shop – buyers just need to plug and play.
“It’s like a DVD player with ‘play’, ‘rewind’ and such,” says Rosen. “If you have any trouble, our tech support is here to talk you through it.”
With a million dollars in sales per year for their security cameras in North America, the company is proof that rural crime concerns continue to fester.
“Once they start using the units, farmers can’t live without them,” says Rosen. “If a camera breaks, they insist on having a replacement right away while their unit is out for repair. The technology offers peace of mind as well. If you go out to dinner and come back to see tire tracks in your driveway, you can play back the recording to see who was there.”
For gate monitoring, Rosen sells a driveway alert that sends a signal to the house and rings the doorbell if a car moves past the sensor and breaks the beam. Of interest to those with long curving driveways, a camera can also be installed at the end of the drive for immediate viewing of visitors.
The gates themselves, though, come with a hefty price tag and a long wait.
“Controlled gates are in such demand now that we had to wait almost a year to have one installed,” says Fraser. “We paid almost $40,000 for our electric gate, which is about the same as a small tractor. I’d much rather be putting that money towards farm operations, but I have no choice.”
Even with all the safeguards, it only takes a momentary lapse to give crooks the opening they need.
What the truck??
“Two weeks ago we were sitting at home around 9 pm and my wife saw the truck idling with its lights on,” says Newman. “Fortunately, the driver had trouble reversing and wound up abandoning the vehicle, but it was a close call. It turns out one of our family members left the keys in the vehicle, and I let them know in clear terms not to do it again.”
For their part, some provinces are taking steps to address the rural crime problem. According to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s website, the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act, 2020 “protects Ontario farm animals, farms, farmers and their families, agri-food employees, and the safety of the entire food supply by addressing the ongoing threat of unwanted trespassing and from unauthorized interactions with farm animals. The Act strikes an important balance, respecting the right to peaceful public protest, while giving the justice system the tools it needs to help protect farmers, agri-food workers and businesses, and the food supply from trespassing and harassment.”
While such laws are a start, not all farms will see the benefit.
“Under that law, for what is called an ‘animal protection zone’, you must have continuous fencing around the entire area for someone to be charged with trespassing, and a lot of farms don’t have that today due to cost and inconvenience,” says Fraser. “Does this mean that many crop farmers will still be at risk from people picnicking on their land or protesting genetically modified food?”
The wild west
Law enforcement on the Prairies has also been working to address the issue, and for good reason. In the same report showing 23 per cent higher crime rates in rural areas over urban centres in 2017, Statistics Canada revealed the difference to be 36-42 per cent on the Prairies.
The report goes on to say that like most property crimes, “rates of break and enter and motor vehicle theft were higher in the Prairie provinces, especially Alberta. In 2017, police reported 978 break and enter incidents per 100,000 population in rural Alberta. This was four times higher than in rural Prince Edward Island, the province with the lowest break and enter rate in rural areas, and 48 per cent higher than in urban Alberta. Similarly, police reported 747 incidents of motor vehicle theft per 100,000 population in rural Alberta, a rate 12 times higher than that recorded in rural Prince Edward Island and 38 per cent higher than in urban Alberta.”
The numbers speak volumes, and have led to targeted efforts across the Prairies. According to Public Safety Canada, the Alberta RCMP developed a Crime Reduction Strategy in 2017 that “… takes a coordinated divisional approach to focus resources in vulnerable communities while leveraging the support of provincial and federal partners to address the root causes of crime and break the cycle of crime. Data spanning from 2017-2019 shows a decrease in the four key crime indicators and the Crime Reduction Units continue to see success with more than 700 arrests per year.”
In Saskatchewan, government responded to greater rural crime and gang activity by forming Crime Reduction Teams in 2018. Using mobile patrols, they target high risk offenders in various parts of the province. Perhaps of more significance for farmers, an Agricultural Investigation Section is being tested that focuses on agricultural criminal activity such as theft of livestock and feed and crimes related to fertilizer and seed distribution.
Not to be outdone, the RCMP in Manitoba now has its own Crime Reduction Strategy. The Public Safety Canada website describes it as including “… efforts to reduce incidents, severity, fear, and impact in rural communities. The objectives include forming partnerships, evidence-based service delivery, and results-based accountability. The focus of the strategy is on the root causes of crime, prolific offenders, and crime hot spots.”
While the law has its place, a big part of combatting rural crime comes down to the two Cs: Communication and collaboration.
Facing the problem
“Patrols can help, but most rural areas are so vast that it’s hard to watch everything,” says Newman.
“I think neighborhood watch programs are effective, and efforts like Foothills Crime Watch Facebook page make a difference. My wife Robin used the latter after that incident with someone trying to steal our truck, and within 90 seconds we were getting phone calls and comments about it. The page is a great place to post information about suspicious vehicles in the area or recent thefts or vandalism. Everyone is connected by their phone, so when it comes to alerting neighbours about an issue, social media is where it’s at.”
Still, farmers like Newman are frustrated with the lack of progress in curbing rural crime. He’d like to see more communication from the police about what is happening in a particular area and whether there are break-ins or other threats to be aware of.
“There must be some way to effect change, as we have been doing the same things for 20 years and they haven’t been working,” says Newman.
“I can lock up my place like Fort Knox, and they just move on to the next place that is less secure.
“We don’t want to fence everything up because then we have to constantly open and close gates in the course of our work.
“Nowadays, we can’t even leave the farm unattended for a moment. When there’s a funeral, we need to hire someone to drive around and check different properties, as thieves know that’s a prime time to strike.”
As if COVID-19 hasn’t done enough damage, it may have exacerbated the issue of farm security in the process.
“During the pandemic, it was understandable that people wanted to get out of the city for the day to somewhere more remote and relax, and our farming community is only a stone’s throw from metro Toronto,” says Fraser. “It speaks to the increasing need for more public parks in urban centers as more and more Canadians reside in metropolitan areas and need a place to go.”
If all else fails, it may pay to get “creative” in responding to interlopers.
“When someone did a drive-by and dumped a big load of garbage on one of our local farms, the farmer combed through it and found a children’s toy and a few receipts with the person’s address,” says Fraser. “He picked up all the garbage in the front end loader of his tractor, drove into the city and deposited the whole load on the guy’s driveway. Regrettably, fear and frustration are running high.”
So to review, then:
Dumping your household trash in a farmer’s ditch: Liable to backfire. BF