Funding nearly exhausted for ag theft program

  • Fruit prepares to ripen at a South Kona farm. Tom Linder/West Hawaii Today

  • Mitch Roth

After making strides to reduce agricultural theft and vandalism in Hawaii, a program recently created by the Department of Agriculture to curb the problem may be in its final days.

An April 24 survey released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed a combined loss of $3.12 million throughout Hawaii in 2019 due to agricultural theft and vandalism. For comparison, the state recorded combined losses of $3.97 million in 2004: the last time this survey was conducted.

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In addition, the number of farms reporting theft and/or vandalism in 2019 was down more than 17% statewide from 2004, with each of the state’s four counties reporting a drop in farms reporting theft.

The cause of these decreases is likely twofold.

In addition to implementing a two-year agricultural theft and vandalism project via Act 217 in July 2019, security costs incurred by farmers across the state rose by more than 50% over the past 15 years to a total of $11.2 million in 2019.

As a result of this combination of increased security and increased ability to prosecute agricultural crimes, guilty findings from arrests made in connection to agricultural theft and vandalism nearly tripled to a rate of almost 85%, according to the Hawaii County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, which was allocated $200,000 to fund agricultural crimes investigator Shane Muramaru’s position.

“There’s times when police may not think about some things (that Muramaru) thinks about as far as investigations. Cases may come in as minor, petty misdemeanor cases, and Shane’s able to show them why they’re felony cases,” said Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth. “We’ve taken these cases a little more seriously because we realize that people who commit these crimes are really impacting peoples’ livelihoods; they’re impacting food safety.”

“Our producers like our farmers and our ranchers, they don’t get paid a set paycheck every two weeks,” Muramaru added. “They get paid when they produce. They wait all this time to get their product ready, and somebody steals it.”

The program’s success has sparked calls for an expansion of the project.

Earlier thus year, the Legislature introduced a pair of bills – Senate Bill 2282 and House Bill 2189 – proposing a similar program enforced statewide. It garnered widespread support, including from Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim.

“The Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney’s office has had an investigator working on agricultural crimes, and we have received positive comments from the agriculture community about their work,” said Kim in a comment on the bill. “We therefore believe that a statewide program is warranted, based on the results achieved on the Big Island.”

Question over the ability for the program’s special fund to be self-sustaining, however, resulted in a deferral of the bills in early March.

Though Act 217 was originally set to expire in 2021, funding was only allocated for the first year and current conditions have made the project’s future uncertain.

Funds for the initiative will likely run out by mid-June without legislative intervention, which is unlikely due to the recess forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The funding for this year wasn’t able to be passed, which was unfortunate, but I’m hoping that the Agriculture Department will pick it up and continue that program…” said Rep. Richard Creagan (D-South Kona, Ka’u and portions of North Kona), who is chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. “Money is being provided by the governor, by the USDA; funding is flowing to the Department of Agriculture. Hopefully, they’ll be able to take some of that.”

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Even if the program doesn’t receive funding to continue, Roth maintains its short run was a success.

“We’ve done a lot of education with it, not just with the police, but with the farmers and the farmers markets,” Roth said. “We’ve been able to make some pretty good cases.”

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