N.H. law aims to keep crop thieves, including the unwitting ones, from helping themselves

  • Chris LaValley stands among his golden comet chickens at the family farm on Sept. 12. LaValley is hoping new laws will help reduce crop theft and threats to livestock, including chickens. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Chris LaValley at the family farm stand on Route 3 in Hooksett on Sept. 12. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Chris LaValley and one of his Golden Comet chickens at the family farm on Thursday, September 12, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chris LaValley points to how close his farm land and chickens are to Route 28 in Allenstown. He has repeatedly dealt with people stealing from his land and harming his chicken coop at the family farm. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/28/2019 10:23:11 PM

A big reason Chris LaValley caught his lucky break came down to the car he was driving.

The farmer’s own vehicle was being fixed in the shop. So when he went to check on his corn fields, he took his wife’s car.

That meant diving slower than usual. Driving slower meant kicking up less dust from the long dirt road hugging the property. Less dust meant a smaller warning system for anyone in the fields.

When LaValley got to the end of the road, he and his intruders were both surprised.

It was 2012, and LaValley, owner of LaValley Farms, had been plagued with a simple problem for months: thieves. Large portions of his produce were going missing, week by week, almost methodically. Bags of vegetables had sometimes been spotted throughout the field, presumably collected and left to be picked up later.

It’s an issue that hasn’t gone away. Farmers across the state have faced the same problems now as then – from innocent trespassers to calculating thieves – and they’ve been clamoring for lawmakers to do something about it for years.

This year, they’ve got something. A new state statute signed into law in July, House Bill 394, will bolster New Hampshire’s existing crop-theft statutes and significantly raise the penalty for violating it.

Farmers of all stripes are elated. But back in 2012, LaValley says, justice felt very much an elusive goal.

As LaValley rounded the corner, the scene before him was jaw-dropping. Two men were scurrying away from the field, heading for the Merrimack River. Along fields sat a number of large bags, packed with picked crops. On the banks sat a rowboat, perched to assist in the escape.

After a loud altercation, a series of threats, and one raised oar, LaValley finally got the police on their way. The men were ultimately arrested and fined, LaValley says.

It was a brief victory, but also a wake-up call. This year, a long-running effort by LaValley to strengthen the state’s law has finally borne results.

Starting in 2020, those who tamper with or steal crops and livestock will face a minimum $500 fine. That fine would apply to anyone who would “cut, fell, destroy, injure, damage, cause to be damaged, carry away, consume, tamper with, worry, or vandalize,” according to the law.

Unlike now, where vandals need to “knowingly” participate in the behavior, the new law applies the $500 to those who “recklessly” do so too – a significant reduction of the threshold that could allow more convictions.

“It makes minimal but we think very important changes to the current statute,” said Rob Johnson, policy director at the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation.

And for many farmers, it’s another tool to fight a ballooning statewide problem.

‘They pick what they want’

Of all the fields he manages, Chris LaValley’s Pembroke field is tucked away. A dirt road leads visitors along, with a gate at the end.

“It’s very secluded, so it’s easy for people to come in,” LaValley said. “That’s the one that usually gets hit the hardest.”

In 2016, that’s exactly what did happen. In one swoop, thieves stole about 700 ears of corn, cucumbers, Swiss chard and tomatoes. The theft, apparently occurring overnight, cost well over $400 in total.

The perpetrators in that case were never found. But the incident represented a painful setback for LaValley, and it hardened his resolve to find a better form of deterrent. Not long after the theft, he reached out to Johnson at the Farm Bureau to push for better laws.

Grand crop larceny, along the lines of a midnight raid, is not the only type of disruption LaValley faces. Many unauthorized harvests come from people who don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.

Sometimes people pick two or three ears of corn for dinner. Hikers and off-road motorists might pick up a tomato or two. In one case, a visitor was picking flowers from the farm; when confronted, he said he was on his way to the hospital.

LaValley doesn’t begrudge genuine misunderstandings. But the activity adds up, he says, and he’s hoping it will stop.

He’s not alone there. Back in April, a hearing room in Concord was packed with farmers from up and down the state, each with their own stories.

Donald Ross has tried to warn guests to Rossview Farm in Concord: eating a few strawberries to try them out is fine; eating more is stealing. And picking and eating can spread saliva to other crops.

Sometimes, they won’t listen, though. And Ross has another problem: intruders cutting down Christmas trees around the holidays, at a cost of $50 each. For the first time, the new law includes Christmas trees in the crop theft statute.

Meanwhile, Katie Kardinal, a wild-blueberry farmer in Littleton, takes less of an issue with those who eat the blueberries than with those who trespass. People tramping through her fields can destroy plants that can take years to regenerate. She found one person hang gliding off her mountain.

And Dan Hicks, of Sunnycrest Farms in Londonderry, has horror stories of his own.

One day, he closed his farm stand at 6 p.m. By 7 p.m, he received a call from his daughter. Twenty-one cars had arrived at once.

“They go out in my orchard and they pick what they want,” Hicks testified. “They picked apples. They picked grapes. They picked summer squash. Zucchini.”

It was the first time he had seen it in 20 years. And even when police arrived, the trespassers were laughing.

“They asked me what do you want to do,” he said. “And at that point of time I want them to arrest everyone there and put them in jail. Because it’s personal to us. It’s something we’ve worked the whole year to get.”

The new law, Hicks said, could clarify what, exactly, to do.

Poultry disturbances

The issue is not confined to crops. “We have problems with people stealing chickens,” LaValley says. Eggs, too.

That particular behavior is why the law prohibits “worrying” livestock, a term that LaValley says covers a wide range of behavior, much of which people might consider innocuous.

Take chickens. In large coops like LaValley’s – which is 3,000 chickens strong – the birds have plenty of room to roam. But their sheer numbers can lead to panic, and that can lead to tragedy.

If a visitor to a farm drives a dirt bike or ATV around the coop, the chickens may sprint to the middle of the coop, piling on top of each other and killing the birds at the bottom.

If a dog is let off the leash and runs around the fencing, the same thing might happen.

Some of the problems come from unwanted chickens – chicken intruders.

“The biggest problem we have is actually people dropping off chickens,” he said. “Which, that sounds silly, but it’s a huge problem on our end.”

People decide they don’t want to take care of their chickens anymore. Or they have a rooster that has to go. So they go to the nearest farm.

“They come here and they throw them in,” LaValley said. “ ‘Have a good life!’ and they leave.”

LaValley said he had seen it happen on the local highway – Route 28. People pull up and start chucking birds into the coop.

It sounds innocent. But the unseen effects can be devastating.

The main issue: disease. LaValley lost 1,800 birds one year due to infection. Roosters are also problematic: They take up feed and don’t lay eggs, they upset other birds, and they can bring mites and parasites.

Sometimes the incoming chicken doesn’t make it very long, a victim of mob justice by 3,000 birds that distrust an interloper. It’s a sad outcome for the people dropping the chicken off for a better life.

And it’s not an isolated problem. Chickens are dumped into the coop “one or two dozen times a year,” LaValley says.

There used to be signs around the property. People ignored them.

“It’s not funny,” LaValley added. “A $500 fine is minimal to the damage they could do just by throwing a chicken, even though the sign says don’t do that.”

Rising costs

For the farmers, everything has an impact. The smaller behavior slowly, cumulatively drives up costs. The more dramatic disruptions have an immediate effect.

If enough of a field of corn is pilfered, that can knock out the supply for a while. That might drive away side purchases that could have been made alongside the corn, pushing business away.

Crop and livestock theft used to be taken a lot more seriously in New Hampshire, farmers note. New Hampshire’s state police was originally formed to police two major areas: drunken driving and agricultural crimes.

“It was a huge deal back then,” LaValley said. “And now we have a minimal effect.”

Advocates for farms hope the new law will help inform the police as much as the unwitting thieves, farmers say. Right now, when people are caught with crops or livestock, officers can only do so much.

That’s because the current law allows them only to pursue a fine for the goods stolen in that instance. The fine is equivalent to 10 times the market value of what was stolen on the spot, but that’s cold comfort to farmers who suspect the perpetrators of committing a litany of similar thefts.

That 10-times multiplier was meant to fix the problem as far back as 2003. But a lack of awareness among farmers and local law enforcement has led it to be underutilized.

Even in LaValley’s 2012 case, with an arrest and prosecution, law enforcement did not pursue the multiplied fine: LaValley got back exactly the market value of the goods that were taken.

By slapping on a $500 minimum fine, the deterrent is strengthened, even if proving the rest of the incidents is near impossible, LaValley said.

“If someone broke into your house every single day and stole one little thing, when you finally catch the person and they have a spoon, the police are gonna laugh: ‘Someone stole a spoon?’ ” LaValley joked. “And you’re like ‘Yeah but I have no utensils because they’ve stolen all the silverware!’”

Culture clash

At the center of the growing activism by farmers around theft is a recognition that the problem is only expanding. To Johnson, and the Farm Bureau, the economic incentives of crop raising have changed.

“Where in the past years I think the theft was more to feed a family, now it’s to sell,” Johnson said. “Just by the quantities they’re taking.”

Some may take the produce south, to restaurants, Johnson speculates; others may try farmers markets or even open their own farm stands by the side of the road. Amid a growing emphasis on local, farm-to-table ingredients, many may be looking to make a profit.

Others are simply inconsiderate. Some farmers report seeing families arrive at orchards with picnic baskets, Johnson said, making a meal out of the produce they eat on the spot.

But for the casual trespassers, there’s also a cultural misunderstanding at work. Residents often don’t understand how the farms near them operate, farmers say. They may see them as community jewels, but jewels that can be borrowed from.

For Johnson it’s an elemental problem. “I think it goes back to where there was a day when most people owned land. And they don’t any more.”

And the Farm Bureau has an example they like to cite: “If somebody were to come on to your one-acre house lot and cut down a tree and take it, I think everyone understands that’s wrong,” Johnson says. “But my 100 acres is just the same.”

LaValley knows firsthand that disconnect: He’s found himself on the other end of residents getting angry at being admonished.

But the key, he says is to focus on the good in people.

“We have cars lined up over here,” he said, pointing to the coop. “Just watching. I love it. We have people who come here for lunch. They watch the chickens. I love it. I don’t want to have to be going: ‘Which one of you has a bad agenda.’ ”

He paused. “They support us so well, and you’re looking at such a small percentage of people (who cause trouble). But unfortunately, they put that bad taste in your mouth, and they really make it difficult to do what we’re doing.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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