Banding together to stop rural crime

New Agri-Watch program in Chilliwack has farmers helping farmers

Const. Jamie Rae

Think of property crime in Chilliwack, and the area around Five Corners might spring to mind.

But while the downtown is perceived as an epicentre of criminal behaviour, the truth is it’s everywhere.

Even in peaceful rural settings, known for grazing cows and corn stalks waving in the breeze, bad things happen.

“Dairy farms have a lot of high-dollar items, a lot of steel and a lot of wire,” said Devan Toop. “We have thieves come in to take tools or strip out our wiring and plumbing. A lot of people come to this community with the expectation that you can keep your door unlocked and trust your neighbour. And that’s why a lot of bad people come to the country as well, because they feel people are a bit lax in protecting their property.”

A new program coordinated by Toop and a diversified advisory committee looks to address rural crime in a proactive way.

Operating in Greendale since April, and looking to expand elsewhere, Agri-Watch is uniting a wide range of farmers (dairy, poultry, hay, nursery) in a common cause.

Modelled after the Block Watch program, property owners purchase reflective signs to post on their property.

A small sign costs $28. A large sign costs $70.

Statistics say the presence of signs alone can cause crime to drop by approximately 80 per cent. Agri-Watch participants also get access to a closed Facebook page where they can report break-ins and suspicious activity.

“It’s a community-driven program where we band together to help ourselves and help the police,” said Toop, who’s had everything from motorcycles to pressure-washers stolen from his properties. “Many times a farmer gets something stolen, he checks his insurance deductible and says, ‘Well, maybe it’s worth it and maybe it’s not.’ When they don’t report a crime, it skews the statistics and lowers the police presence in an area where it may be needed. Maybe the biggest thing this program does it make it easier for farmers to report problems.”

“Most of what was going on in Greendale wasn’t being reported,” added Cst. Jamie Rae, the RCMP liaison for the Agri-Watch program. “People told me they didn’t have time, which is understandable, or they didn’t want to bother us with something so small. Or they didn’t think anything could be done. Part of the program is educating people about when and why to call police.”

Rae says Chilliwack is unique in its layout.

Rarely does he see urban residential as close to farmland as it is here, allowing crime to spill out of the city.

“For example, in rural Alberta where I’m from, you’ll never see somebody riding through farmland on a bicycle,” he explained. “Whereas here, some of the same people who are riding around downtown Chilliwack stealing from vehicles in the middle of the night are doing the same things in the rural areas. Because they can.”

Rae credits Toop and his fellow farmers for taking initiative and believes the community-driven model should ensure the program endures, even as RCMP liaisons change.

“We are invested in the community and we aren’t going anywhere, so you can always count on us to be vigilant,” said Toop, whose family has been farming in Chilliwack for generations upon generations. “The program has only been running about six months, and I think we’ll need a year to properly gauge our success. But personally, it’s already increased my comfort level because I’m communicating more with the farmers around me.”

Rae and Toop hope to take the program to Yarrow next, with cooperation from Abbotsford Community Policing.

Rosedale, East Chilliwack, Ryder Lake and the Columbia Valley are also on the radar.

“Once we get the ball rolling we’ll be able to compare startup stats to where we are in a year,” Rae said. “We’re looking to find someone in Yarrow who wants to spearhead it the way Devan has here. Once we get the program up and running in all of those areas, we’ll really be able to track the stats to see how successful it is.”

For more info, contact Rae at the Community Policing Office at 604-393-3000.