Fear of crime, disease tightens farm security: Knowing who's on the farm -- and why -- is more important than ever for farmers

(Note: This area has at least "local law enforcement commander" -- an impressive title, considering that the problems described in the article seem to elude his ability to solve them.)

December 29, 2002

By John F. Bonfatti


Buffalo News

One News Plaza

P.O. Box 100

Buffalo, New York 14240


To submit a Letter to the Editor: msullivan@buffnews.com

A rash of milk tampering cases in Western New York, numerous instances of fertilizer theft at Finger Lakes farms, and the general unease created by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have area farmers focusing on security more than ever.

"A lot more farmers are coming to us with issues of farm security," said Bob King, Monroe County Cornell Cooperative Extension agent. "We also have farmers who are asking about incorporating security into their new building plans."

Over the past decade or so, concern about the spread of disease from one herd to another by people whose jobs bring them to dairy farms on a regular basis -- milk truck drivers, veterinarians, salespeople -- has led many farmers to institute biosecurity measures.

Signs prohibiting entry to milking parlors and barns are now posted on almost all farms, which have places where visitors can thoroughly wash down their boots before they enter areas where animals are kept.

The precautions are aimed at stopping the spread of infectious diseases, such as the hoof-and-mouth epidemic in Europe that led to the destruction of more than a million animals over the last several years.

Were the disease to strike America's farms, the results could be devastating. "It could cripple this nation, even with a small contamination," said one local law enforcement commander, who asked not to be named. "We're aware of that."

But that type of contamination is almost always accidental. The string of milk contaminations and fertilizer thefts were done deliberately, with malicious intent.

Police agencies in Western New York continue to investigate close to two dozen instances of deliberate injection of antibiotics into either cows or bulk milk storage tanks over the past year or so.

It's not unusual for police to investigate isolated cases of milk tampering. Most times, investigators are quickly able to zero in on the suspect, who is usually a disgruntled former farm worker.

These incidents, however, have left investigators with precious few clues and leads -- except that they are fairly sure the culprits are very familiar with dairy farms and cows.

"For a novice, how do you walk into a barn of 500 cows and not worry about getting stampeded?" said State Police Lt. John Hibsch, one of those investigating the tamperings.

And while there has been a "significant decrease" in the incidents over the past several months, Hibsch said the investigation into who is responsible for the crimes has yet to produce a solid suspect or suspects.

"I'm not going to say we haven't focused on people we thought were viable subjects who didn't pan out," he said. "It's incredibly frustrating, but I'm optimistic. I think we're going to make an arrest on this. I really believe that."

The local milk tampering cases aren't the only instances of malicious intrusions on upstate New York farms.

Finger Lakes farms have been targeted by thieves seeking the liquid fertilizer anhydrous ammonia. A preferred fertilizer for corn growers, it is also used in the production of methamphetamine, a powerful illegal drug that makes users feel euphoric but can also leave them sleep-deprived, aggressive and violent.

In Cayuga County alone, more than 200 such thefts have occurred in the last two years, according to county Sheriff's Investigator Ralph Gray, who said there have been numerous other incidents in surrounding counties.

"We've had between 30 and 40 arrests, (but) we know we've only hit the tip of the iceberg," Gray said.

Anhydrous ammonia is usually kept in small tanks on trailers, often in the field where it is being used. Thieves steal from the tanks using 5-gallon beverage containers or 20-gallon propane tanks, then resell the chemical to methamphetamine laboratories along the Pennsylvania border with the Southern Tier.

Reassessing security

Gray tells farmers to first worry about their own safety: "Don't confront these individuals. Most of them are under the influence of methamphetamine. And some of the people we've arrested have been armed."

Local law enforcement officials say they have yet to hear of any cases in Western New York of ammonia theft. But news of the crimes in the Finger Lakes, combined with the tampering incidents locally, are prompting farmers to reassess their security.

Some are beginning to incorporate security measures into any new construction on the farm, according to Bob Piechocki of R&R Precision Construction of Attica, which specializes in farm construction.

At one farm he's working on, Piechocki said the owners wanted "one entrance into the front end of the building so they can control people coming and going. They have a spot for employees to come and go from.

And for visitors, they have an overhead observation deck, so they can't get into the facility, but they can look out and observe."

Wyoming County dairy farmer Gary Van Slyke said the local milk tampering cases prompted him to install security cameras on his 1,200-cow farm in Pike.

A challenging task

"We had talked about it for two years prior to that, but that just probably made it happen a little faster," he said. "Our farm publications are constantly talking about biosecurity and agriterrorism and to be prepared. It's on everybody's mind."

Van Slyke's cameras monitor the barn, milking parlor and maternity area. One of his sons, Ken, reviews the tapes every day for suspicious activity.

But most farms, with their multiple buildings and wide-open fields, find a comprehensive surveillance program challenging, said Strykersville dairy farmer Mike Alameter, whose farm was hit in one of the tampering incidents.

"A farm is so open," he said. "We are very vulnerable. There's absolutely no way, unless we put razor wire completely around the property, that we're going to keep everybody out."

Wyoming County dairy farmer Pete Dueppengiesser said he is aware of one massive farm in Oregon that has done just that. "There's a chain-link fence around the farm, and they don't let anyone in," he said.

Still, Alameter said, farmers are trying different measures to try to keep track of unwanted visitors.

"They've got some things they don't want exposed," he said. "Nothing harmful, like loaded guns at the door or something, but little things that, if somebody does come in, it's known. One guy has an area nobody walks through, and he hopes that if someone comes in and walks through that area, then they'll have a footprint."

Niagara County fruit grower Jim Bittner said he and his staff are a lot more conscious about locking doors now than before. As for his orchards, "There's no way we could secure our orchards. There's people out there all the time riding ATVs through them."

State Police Investigator Hibsch said there has been a significant decrease in the number of tamperings over the past few months, and he credits area farmers for being more vigilant.

"They're taking greater precautionary measures with their antibiotics, in terms of storage and safety," he said. "And they're keeping a better handle on what's in stock."

Other farmers, such as New York Farm Bureau President John Lincoln, have installed more lights and connected them to motion detectors. But there's only so much you can do, he said.

"You can lock the main entrance, but then you've still got entry possible from the barn," he said.

Vigilance is the key to both preventing intrusions and possibly solving the ones that have occurred, according to Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace. Fortunately, he said, farmers and their neighbors in the country have always kept their eyes open.

"They do look out for one another," he said. "And the law enforcement people know many of these places and individuals. We may notice something that's not quite right. There's a great advantage to people being more aware of what's around them."

King, of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County, said the more eyes involved, the better.

One farmer's best friend

"We're telling people one of the best tools they have is not just themselves, but their families, employees and neighbors," he said. "And to report any suspicious behavior immediately. Don't try to rationalize it. Law enforcement would rather have (the report), and if it turns out to be nothing, they're OK with that."

In an age when surveillance cameras, better fencing and more lights are becoming more and more common security precautions on the farm, Alden dairyman James Foss believes in a much simpler approach.

"Call me old-fashioned, but a good dog is probably about the best friend you can have," said Foss, whose farm is patrolled by a quick-to-bark dog named Freckles. "Anybody messes around with the milk house, you know it."