BAKERSFIELD, CA - City crime is spreading to the countryside. The Sheriff's Department says rural crime, mainly theft, is at an all-time high and it's costing the county's economy millions of dollars.
"It occurs every day, several times a day," said Sgt. Robert Winn of the Kern County Sheriff's Department Rural Crimes Unit.
Thieves are captured on hidden camera stealing by night, by day, with wire cutters and through fences.
"I would say nobody is safe from it," said Perrin Koostra, owner of Koostra Dairy.
Farmers say it's a free-for-all in the fields.
"They'll take anything. They'll take a buck from you," said Jack Frey of Buttonwillow Land and Cattle.
Since the end of May, the Sheriff's Department said thieves have stolen at least 500 gallons of diesel fuel, 70 'No trespassing' signs, 2,000 grape plants, 600 feet of copper wire, oil rig control panels, tractors, trailers, and the list goes on.
"You leave anything laying around, it's going to walk off," said Scott Dewar, Manager for Crown Harvesting near Lamont.
Deputies say it's getting worse. In the last year there were 1,152 rural crime incidents, up 89 percent since 2009.
"Emotionally, you feel violated just like any homeowner would. It's your property and you've got people running around out here like it's some public park," said Koostra.
In 2012, thefts resulted in a loss of $5.3 million to farmers and oil companies, $1.5 million of which is metal thefts.
"Anything they can get their hands on and carry they're going to take it, like this blade," said Frey.
Deputies say thieves will take the tops off sprinkler heads.
"People will just go up to them and break the heads off because they're made of brass," said Sgt. Winn.
Thieves also snip copper wire from wells.
"They cut that end of the wire and this end and then they pull it from underground," said Sgt. Winn.
In addition to costing money, the thefts stop production in its tracks.
"It's really for a farmer, an act of terrorism because every morning when you wake up you don't know if you are going to be able to put your guys to work or not because you don't know if your equipment is there," said Frey.
Like the ravaged oil field at the end of Morning Drive that was damaged so heavily by thieves, it's now abandoned.
"I'm not aware of anything people won't steal," said Sgt. Winn.
They take unbranded cattle, grapes, and melons, and at risk of shedding a tear swipe a sack of onions.
"The farmers will pick the onions, put them in bags and they leave them in the fields several days while they dry. They don't have a security guard sitting on this field so people just come up and they steal the bags," said Sgt. Winn.
Most times those onions weigh 50 or 100 pounds a piece.
"That's a lot of onions. I don't know anyone who could eat 50 pounds of onions," said Sgt. Winn. Which is why the Sheriff's Department thinks the produce is sold, many times at roadside stands or even at far away farmer's markets.
"We've had cases where they've taken grapes to the Los Angeles Produce Market," said Sgt. Winn.
Even products that need processing like almonds, are stolen. Like last month when a fake shipper took off from the Paramount Farms facility with 30,000 pounds of nuts.
"He left with $100,000 worth of almonds," said Cmdr. Tyson Davis, General Investigations Division.
Bales of hay aren't even safe.
"We had hay being stolen on such a regular basis you thought it was a drive-up window," said Koostra.
Thieves sell their hay-sized happy meals on the black market for $20 a pop.
"To be honest with you I feel violated," said Dewar.
That's forcing farmers to get creative.
"I've heard of guys putting their business cards in the hay when they're baling it, so you can open up the hay and they'll be a business card in there," said Dewar.
Just in case the Sheriff's Department finds the stolen stacks.
"It's hard to run around and protect it all," said Koostra.
Cameras, motion sensors, and GPS trackers now all have their places on farms.
"It's almost like Fort Knox, precious metals to a farmer," said Frey.
But still, the thefts continue.
"You can't fence everything and you can't be out here 24/7. Somebody has to sleep at night," said Frey.
With two rural crime investigators for the whole county, the Sheriff's Department says each investigator handles 112 active cases at a time, compared to other units like burglary where each handles 30 to 40 cases.
"The farmers feel like we don't care about them," said Sgt. Winn.
That's exactly why the Rural Crimes Unit is requesting nearly $450,000 a year to hire three more investigators.
"That would double the size of the unit," said Cmdr. Davis.
Oil companies have publicly supported the plan in letters and farmers with testimony. But, the board has not yet approved the proposal.
"I don't know why they don't budget for more bodies to get this done," said Frey.
Without the bodies, growers say they'll have no choice but to turn their fields into fortresses when all they wanted was a farm.
"It's really frustrating, and it makes your jobs that much harder," said Frey.
Rural crimes investigators made 50 arrests this past year. They attribute the crime rate increase to prison realignment.