Rural areas around Lodi see increase in crime

A Farm Watch sign displayed along North Vintage Road in Lodi on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015.

In an effort to combat an increase in rural crime, residents and farmers in agricultural areas just outside the city limits are coming together to form their own Neighborhood Watch group.

Six months ago, Manna Ranch owner Mike Manna held a large meeting with farmers, ranchers, residents and the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office to discuss the recent spike in suspicious and criminal activity on country roads.

Christy Newport, president of Chatfield Construction, was one of the many rural residents who attended the meeting. She said the increase in crime in Lodi’s rural area began with home invasions. In recent months, crimes such as mail thefts from roadside communal boxes, farmworkers being robbed at gunpoint and their vehicles burglarized have increased, she said.

“It’s gotten to a point where you can walk out of your home at night and find someone near your farm equipment,” Newport said. “Or all of a sudden you come outside to find people stealing copper.”

Because the Sheriff’s Office is understaffed and must respond to incidents in distant communities like Lathrop, Tracy and Manteca, Newport said it has been difficult for deputies to respond to everything across the county.

One solution meeting attendees came up with six months ago was to have residents begin posting Farm Watch signs on their property, she said.

“One of the things we discussed was how do we do our own Neighborhood Watch, because we’re not really a neighborhood,” Newport said.

The Farm Watch signs, similar to Neighborhood Watch signs posted in areas within Lodi’s city limits, are yellow, black and white with the words “Beware Farm Watch” in big black letters above a picture of a tractor.

The signs include the San Joaquin Sheriff’s Office dispatch number so people can call if they see anything suspicious.

Newport said the San Joaquin Farm Bureau partnered with the Sheriff’s Office years ago to produce the signs, but they have only been recently rediscovered by the rural community.

Now, Newport is providing the signs to local farmers and ranchers in partnership with the Sheriff’s Office.

Last month, she said, 60 signs were picked up at Chatfield Construction in just two days. Newport said she has 200 signs on order from the Sheriff’s Office and more than 250 residents on a waiting list for them.

In addition to posting the Farm Watch signs, ranchers, growers and residents have started a Lodi Farmer Crime Prevention page on Facebook, where members can post information on suspicious activity or crimes to let others know what’s going on. Some farmers have posted photos of a man in a pickup truck seen approaching workers on the side of the road, or photos of a man in a sedan taking mail out of postal boxes.

“A lot of people feel hesitant to call the Sheriff for a non-emergency,” Newport said. “It’s important to get this kind of information out there. If you don’t want to call the Sheriff, post what you know on Facebook.”

Amy Blagg, director of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association, is a member of the Farm Bureau’s board of directors. She also heads up SJFB’s health and safety committee, which provides crime prevention tips and training for rural farmers and residents.

She said in addition to posts from residents on the Lodi Farmer Crime Prevention page, the Farm Bureau has sent out its own crime alerts to those who live in rural Lodi.

“For as long as I’ve been involved, (crime) has continued to be a problem, whether it’s mail theft or metal theft,” she said. “Just last week we had a handful of growers report that they had copper stolen out of their pumps.”

Blagg said that while Newport has a long waiting list for Farm Watch signs at Chatfield Construction, residents can purchase them at the SJFB offices at 3920 Ad Art Road in Stockton for $10.

She said Sheriff Steve Moore will be presenting a rural crime report at tonight’s SJFB board of directors meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. at 3920 Ad Art Road.

Contact reporter Wes Bowers at wesb@lodinews.com.

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