By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Produce stolen from Federico Dicion's 1.5-acre Waialua farm a couple of weeks ago included 11 bunches of bananas, 30 tapioca roots, 100 pumpkins and 5 pounds of green beans. Most of the items were recovered from a pickup point before they could be taken, and the man suspected of stealing them was arrested Friday
North Shore agricultural leaders are hoping to bring together area farmers in a unified front against the serious problem of agricultural thefts. Both agricultural leaders and area police say it's a frustrating problem because the crime tends to be underreported and hard to prosecute. The crimes can also be devastating for farmers, said Honolulu Police Department Detective Tommy Smith of the Wahiawa subdistrict. "If we get our phone stolen, we can go replace it with money," Smith said. "But if they get their crops stolen, they cannot just replace their crops. It's financially devastating to some of these farmers if that happens."HPD, the state Department of Agriculture and the North Shore Chamber of Commerce are holding a meeting Tuesday night to discuss the ongoing problem and the possibility of forming an "agricultural neighborhood watch" where farmers and their supporters monitor each other's properties and crops, and share information about criminal or suspicious activity. Even without a formal watch group established, the idea of farmers helping farmers aided in the capture of a suspect Friday afternoon.
Two weeks ago, Waialua vegetable and fruit farmer Federico Dicion got a call from his sister-in-law, who had been contacted by someone living near Dicion's farm. The man wanted Dicion to know that a suspicious man, known in the community, appeared to be stealing produce from his 1.5-acre farm.
Among the items stolen were 11 bunches of bananas, 30 tapioca roots, 100 pumpkins and 5 pounds of green beans, Dicion said. Most of the items were retrieved from a pickup spot before they could be taken.
On Friday afternoon, Dicion was just beginning to show the Star-Advertiser where the thief had harvested the vegetable and fruits when he and Waialua Farmers Co-op President Delphine Otineru noticed a man with straggly hair and a red T-shirt wandering in the fields.
"Look! That's the one!" Otineru exclaimed as the man continued to roam the fields while carrying a large bag, a pick and a machete. The man appeared oblivious to photos being taken of him and the conversation being held among those who spotted him. Police arrived about 20 minutes later and arrested the man on counts of fourth-degree attempted theft in connection with Friday's incident, as well as second-degree attempted theft in connection with the incident a couple of weeks ago.
The suspect, 52, has a criminal record and is homeless. Otineru said the problem is worsening.
"I guess people are getting desperate because they're not only taking the mature crop, but they're taking the immature ones that are not full-developed, too," she said.
Otineru, who grows cut flowers, said she notices when she harvests her plants that there are far fewer than she anticipated. The problem is that theft is difficult to prove, she said. Otineru said the plants and produce are not showing up at any North Shore farmers markets but could be heading to other parts of the island. "The farmers here are pretty close," Otineru said. "We pretty much take care of each other."
HPD said that from Jan. 1, there have been eight cases of second-degree theft, two cases of third-degree theft, two cases of fourth-degree criminal property damage and one case of second-degree burglary in the North Shore area. Smith said ag thefts tend to be underreported so the actual number of incidents may be higher. Otineru said one reason for the underreporting is because many farmers have limited English skills because they are from the Philippines, Laos, Thailand and other nations.
Immigrants also tend to be less willing to come forward because of fear of retaliation, she said.
The culprits are not just taking produce and plants. Last month, burglars broke into the administrative office of Alluvion Inc. and cracked open the cash register, said Susan Matsushima, president of the plant sales company. "We didn't have much cash, because we do things by credit card and check but there was $75 in the register," Matsushima said. "It is kind of amazing because we do have an alarm system but they were able to come in the window." The company has since installed bars on its louvered windows, she said.
Other farmers have reported stolen equipment and even farm vehicles. Kathleen Pahinui, a member of the North Shore Neighborhood Board, said agricultural thefts in any part of the island is a statewide "food security" issue. "From a bigger picture, if we don't help our farmers and if we don't work together to try to prevent thefts, these guys are going to go out of business," Pahinui said.
"Everyone talks about farming in Hawaii. But the fact is we don't have enough farmers and if we don't protect the ones that we have, we're going to be worse off than we already are."
The Waimanalo Agricultural Association implemented a neighborhood watch program among its membership about 15 years ago. Clifford Migita, the group's president, said he believes the program has helped reduce the amount of agricultural thefts. Initially, farmers would drive around about once a week patrolling for suspicious activity, Migita said. The group's membership has evolved with technology — and the growing age of its members. Now much of the work is done by spreading news of criminal or suspicious activity via email, Migita said. An islandwide network is starting up with the help of larger businesses such as Monsanto. "Eventually, we think it may help around the island," Migita said. "So if someone loses a tractor in Waimanalo, farmers in Waianae will be aware of it. A lot of communities are starting to organize."