VISALIA — As a private detective, Rocky Pipkin doesn't share the same fedora and trenchcoat uniform that his great, great uncle wore in 1917, and he doesn't chase unfaithful spouses.
Instead, Pipkin is often in jeans, hiking boots and a bulletproof vest to track down crooks who try to strip farms of their fruit, their fuel and more commonly, metal.
Pipkin is the president and chief operating officer of Pipkin Detective Agency in Visalia. His agency has been working with local farmers and ranchers to solve agricultural crimes that add up to millions of dollars in theft each year.
"Three or four years ago, we would receive a call once a month on an ag-related theft. Now, it's almost every day," Pipkin said. In the last five years, ag theft investigations have grown to be a bigger part of Pipkin's business. And he believes ag crime will continue to increase.
Crooks are stealing anything they can grab: fuel from wind machines, copper from water pumps, crops and animal feed. Even tractors are being stolen.
Ryan Jacobsen, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said that ag crime has been an issue up and down the state.
"There is not a farmer at this point that has not been affected by this," Jacobsen said. "Everybody I know has had some type of (ag) theft."
Pipkin describes his detective agency as a liaison between businesses and law enforcement. He said they work closely with sheriff's offices, local law enforcement and even agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service. Pipkin said he has worked ag theft cases across the western United States and chased down farm equipment as far away as Florida.
Hiring a private investigator from Pipkin costs $135 per hour per detective, he said. Each case takes a different amount of time and manpower, but the average case can cost farmers $5,000 to $10,000
Sgt. Ryan Hushaw, who oversees the ag crime unit for the Fresno County Sheriff's Office, said outside security is welcome, if farmers can afford it.
"I've only got seven detectives," Hushaw said. "We don't always have the manpower. So if we can get another set of eyes and ears, we welcome it."
From 2012 to 2013, the number of reported ag crimes in Fresno County held steady — about 870 cases total — but the value of losses declined from $4.5 million to $4 million. Metal thefts from farms, however, jumped 28% in that period, to 473 cases in 2013, according to county data.
As expensive as ag crime seems, Hushaw said there are many cases that go unreported. He said criminals often will steal $75 of recycled metal but cause thousands of dollars in damage in the process.
Hushaw said he is starting to see other independent detectives jump on the ag crime bandwagon.
Pipkin got his start as a detective in 1987, but comes from a long line of investigators dating back to 1917 when his great, great uncle was a private detective in Omaha, Neb.
Pipkin has a black and white picture of that uncle hanging in his office hallway. Both great uncles were in law enforcement as well. One was a Fresno police officer, another was a Fresno County sheriff's deputy.
Today, Pipkin carries on his family's tradition with his own firm of 60 employees. Between his detective agency, security and repossession businesses, Pipkin already has about 2,000 clients.
Pipkin said a common practice in crop theft is to skim cherries, pistachios or other products off the top of bins being transported from farmer to buyer.
"If you look at the ag business here in the Central Valley, we're billions and billions of dollars," Pipkin said. "So if (criminals) can skim $100 million off and not get caught, that's a heck of a criminal enterprise that they're engaged in."
Because of high demand from Asia, prices of fruits and nuts have skyrocketed, tempting thieves with high returns for their risk, Pipkin said.
Megan Rapozo, a Tulare County sheriff's spokeswoman, said that agriculture crime fluctuates with the seasons and markets. For example, Rapozo said, wind machine parts are targeted in the fall when the weather turns cold and fragile citrus crops near harvest.
Agricultural companies turn to outside security services for a variety of reasons. Rapozo said there isn't always a crime that initiates business with private companies like Pipkin's.
"It doesn't always take a theft to spark it," Rapozo said. "Sometimes (the agriculture businesses) don't always have the technical equipment like security cameras or the staff to man them or know how to use the technology."
Paramount Citrus has been working with Pipkin's agency for more than five years. On June 8, Pipkin's detectives detained three men for stealing lemons in the middle of the day at Paramount's farm south of Bakersfield. Pipkin turned them over to Kern County sheriff's deputies.
"Crimes such as theft and vandalism have become such a concern in the agricultural community," said Doug Carman, vice president of farming at Paramount Citrus, "that some, like us, have taken steps to further protect our assets by hiring private security to keep watch over our valuable property."
Carman said many of Paramount's farms are so remote, it's often too late to call the sheriff's office when theft occurs. That is why Paramount hires outside investigators and security.
In this case, Pipkin and his detectives were alerted that suspicious activity was happening on Paramount Citrus farms. Pipkin said he parked a little ways off and observed a man on an all-terrain vehicle scouting the farm, and then having two cars follow him when he believed he was alone.
Pipkin saw the suspects picking lemons off the trees and loading them into the cars. He and his crew chased the thieves through the field and caught three men.
"The farms are out in these remote, rural areas, and so it makes it real easy for these guys to send a scout in there to make sure nobody is there from the farmer's business and then just get in there and get as much as they can and then move on to the next place," Pipkin said.
To combat agricultural theft, Pipkin recommends that farmers be more cognizant of their fields and not to leave equipment or tractors in the open.
Patrol fields every day and at different times so thieves don't work around your routine, he advises.
"These thieves are entrepreneurs; they're opportunists," Pipkin said. "There really is no kryptonite to preventing the crooks from ripping you off.
"But do the simple things like lock your gates. If you make it difficult for them to steal from you, they'll move on."
Pipkin Detective Agency
Number of employees: 60
Headquarters: 4318. W. Mineral King Ave. in Visalia
Phone: (559) 622-8889
Annual earnings: $1.5 million to $2.5 million annually
Purpose: Work as a liaison between private business and law enforcement, investigate crimes and educate clients on how to prevent future crime, perform citizen's arrest to detain suspects.
The reporter can be reached at (510) 220-8458, email@example.com or @HtraceyNoren on Twitter.