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County cracks down on crop theft

Updated: 
October 31, 2017 - 12:05am

KAINALIU — Mitch Roth isn’t interested in jailing criminals who pad their pockets pilfering Hawaii Island farms.

The Hawaii County prosecutor is focused instead on eliminating the criminal category of agricultural theft to the greatest extent possible by suffocating the market for stolen produce.

Because if you can’t move the product, what’s the point?

“My goal is not to arrest anybody,” Roth said. “My goal is to educate people so we don’t have a market for stolen goods.”

Ken Love, executive director of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, convened a meeting Friday afternoon at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Kona Cooperative Extension Service in Kainaliu, which a couple dozen frustrated farmers attended.

He did so because of the “frightful” number of phone calls and social media inquiries he’s received asking for advice on how to curb crime taking a bite out of island farmers’ livelihoods.

It was at Love’s meeting that Roth spoke, highlighting the first substantial step in his ag theft initiative — Hawaii County’s Sept. 20 hiring of Shane Muramaru, a full-time agricultural investigator.

Muramaru will spend most of his time monitoring farmers markets and roadside stands, where ag thieves either try to sell directly to the customer or where vendors who may have bought stolen commodities move them through their stands.

“They buy it from people who are stealing it and then they sell it,” said Brooks Wakefield, who has operated a family farm with her husband for nearly 40 years. She deals with mango, avocado and coffee theft costing her thousands of dollars annually.

Farmers like the Wakefields, as well as legitimate vendors, who operate in accordance with the law are hurt even when it’s not their goods that are stolen, as thieves and those who buy from them are able to undercut prices of legitimately procured produce.

Roth said agricultural theft is cyclical and seasonal, but both Wakefield and Love said they believe such crimes to be generally on the rise based on anecdotal evidence.

“There are peaks and valleys, but overall it’s getting worse over the years,” Wakefield said.

Love added he’s been a victim of theft on five occasions already this year, despite taking several precautions.

“I have all the signs,” he explained. “I have a pig fence, which is 6,000 volts at night. I go out and turn the fence on at night, look out, see the stuff, and it’s gone in the morning.”

The law Roth uses to prosecute such crimes renders agricultural theft a felony if supplies or product of more than $100 value or 25 pounds in weight is stolen.

Fines run at $1,000 or twice the damages sustained by the victim and probation or jail time are possibilities, Roth explained Friday.

But as jails are packed tighter, Roth’s office is utilizing newer additions to the law that will make Muramaru’s task of eliminating markets for stolen goods on the island more feasible.

The law mandates vendors buying a certain amount of produce take a photograph of an identification card of the seller.

It also states that sales of any agricultural commodity — as well as the transportation of more than 200 pounds of product or an amount of product with a monetary value of at least $100 marketed for commercial purposes — must be accompanied by a certificate describing the commodity and indicating the seller, owner, buyer, origin and destination of the product.

This paper trail gives investigators an entry point to start looking into suspicious activity while making it more difficult for thieves to sell product and vendors to buy it.

Roth said market monitoring is a top priority, giving vendors something to lose. He added that when authorities have cracked down in the past, either police or Hawaii Department of Agriculture officials, crime totals have plummeted.

Now with Muramaru on full-time, monitoring activity will remain consistent.

State Rep. Richard Creagan of Hawaii Island’s 5th District, who represents a vast amount of West Hawaii’s agricultural land, said he’s optimistic about activity in Oahu this upcoming legislative session that could further help the cause.

“The main thing is passing the bills that we put in to fund one position, but hopefully a couple positions, like for what (Muramaru) is doing,” Creagan said. “The pieces of the puzzle are hopefully coming together so we can do this.”

He’s also made it a priority to start protecting noncommercial growers in the same way laws currently protect those who grow commercially.

“Why shouldn’t somebody with a fruit tree be protected as much as someone who sells?” he posed.

Gov. David Ige has said doubling food production is one of the state’s top priorities.

Those in attendance Friday said protecting the farmers responsible for meeting that goal is paramount to its realization.

Among them was Lori Benton, a certified organic farmer on Hawaii Island for more than 40 years.

“Agricultural sustainability in the state of Hawaii is vitally important,” she said. “We want to keep as much food (as possible) in the State of Hawaii, which means we can not tolerate agricultural theft.”

Those who experience agricultural theft of any kind and in any amount are advised to file a police report. Farmers can reach police by calling the department’s nonemergency line at 935-3311.

They may also contact Muramaru directly via email at shane.muramaru@hawaiicounty.gov or by calling 961-0466.

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