Their Weirdest Farm Crime Stories of 2017

Busted!

Illustration by Jeffery Fisher

Here at Modern Farmer we’re admittedly obsessed with farm crime. And 2017 didn’t disappoint. From the break-up of a massive avocado theft ring in California to the sentencing of “The Codfather,” the year saw some pretty interesting cases. Let's take a look back.

It was a case of grand theft avocado. Three California men were arrested last June for allegedly stealing about $300,000 worth of the green goodness. The men were employed at a Mission Produce-owned ripening facility in Ventura County and had been selling the avocados for months to unsuspecting buyers who thought they were purchasing the fruit from Mission Produce, according to detectives. In November, Carlos Chavez, 29, of Oxnard and Joseph Valenzuela, 38, of Santa Paula, were sentenced to two years in jail for their roles in the scam. A third defendant, 30-year-old Rahim Leblanc of Oxnard had his case dismissed for a lack of evidence.

Carlos “The Codfather” Rafael may not be swimming with the fishes but he managed to get up to his neck in federal crimes. For decades Rafael held sway over the New England cod market and did so using brutish and illegal methods, including intentionally mislabeling products and threatening to kill his rivals. But his dirty dealing finally ended when he got involved with some undercover IRS agents. The Codfather is now in federal prison after being convicted of a slew of crimes, including tax evasion and money laundering.

In the UK, a new phone hotline is helping to stop food fraud, a growing and troubling crime. Food fraud includes things like mislabeling products (calling imported beef locally produced, for instance) to get a better price, or adulterating a product with inferior substances to bulk them up (like adding junk products to spice powders). This type of crime costs the UK about $7.37 billion a year. The launch of the Food Crime Confidential hotline is hoping to curtail the problem and with more than 100 calls a month so far, the program is beginning to work.

Over the last few years there have been some major food safety cases in which consumers have been sickened, or even died in some instances, leading to criminal charges for those responsible. From eggs to cantaloupe to cheese, the purveyors of these deadly products have ended up behind bars.

This year the UK also introduced what could be called CSI for sheep. Think of it as biological branding. A liquid containing a unique DNA code is applied topically to sheep. It can’t be detected by the naked eye, is non-toxic, and can last up to five years. If needed, law enforcement officials can use an ultra violet lighting device to detect the presence of the product, and cross-reference it with a database to determine to whom the sheep belong.

While cattle rustling may seem like a Western movie trope, it’s actually a massive international problem. Cattle theft has been on the rise for the last decade. So this year scientists in Australia and New Zealand collaborated on a new, high-tech device to help combat the problem—think of it like a Fitbit for livestock. The system uses an animal sensing platform with GPS location attached to a collar or ear tag. It can detect any unusual livestock behavior patterns or movements. The information is then sent to a smartphone to clue in ranchers and law enforcement officers that a theft is taking place.

Livestock aren’t the only items coveted by thieves who prey on farmers. In the Mississippi Delta region farmers have been hit hard by criminals who steal all kinds of metal, especially copper, due to their high resale value. Farmers are especially vulnerable since things like irrigation equipment and grain bins represent a goldmine, and the rural nature of the business—less supervision—make farms an enticing target. A new program, the Mississippi Delta Agricultural Theft Task Force, is helping to combat the theft. It’s a unique partnership of law enforcement personnel, farm organizations, scrap dealers, and others from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, that acts as an “early alert system” and clearing house that shares real-time leads and information to law enforcement investigators about ag-related crimes in the region.

Their Weirdest Farm Crime Stories of 2017