A security guard working on Wilbur Ranch in Yuba County got out of his car to check on a security camera. After walking away from his vehicle he heard the alarm going off and upon returning found his car ablaze.
The people or persons responsible were not found but those who work on the ranch believe one of the several unwelcome guests who camp in the walnut orchards burned the car and have been doing other things to the detriment to the ranch.
Wilbur Ranch isn’t the only farm in Yuba County dealing with trespassers. Smith Ranches is having to allocate resources, time and money to deal with the problem.
“Trespassing on our orchards has always been an issue,” Michele Barker Smith, with Smith Ranches, said.
In August, the Yuba County Agriculture Commissioner Steve Scheer coordinated a Land Owner Rights Workshop at the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau.
“It was a venue for landowners to ask questions of the district attorney, sheriff’s office and private attorneys on how to deal with the pervasive issues of trespassing that have been occurring on many properties in Yuba County,” Scheer said in an email.
On Sept. 3, members of Yuba County Code Enforcement, the Yuba County District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff Wendell Anderson visited Wilbur Ranch and got a tour of what has been happening by James Camblin from Wilbur and Smith.
Camblin and Smith did not refer to the people trespassing on their properties as homeless.
“We call them tweakers, they’re vagrants, they are the ones that are using your land to manufacture meth and strip cars at night,” Smith said.
Stolen cars are abandoned in the orchards and are either stripped for parts or burned to get to the copper inside. The fire scorches the trees and the dust from cars driving through causes more mites. Camblin said it’s approximately $50 an acre to spray trees to rid them of mites.
Camblin said it takes eight or more years for walnuts to mature so before the ranch can enjoy the profit from a crop it must incur years of associated costs. When a tree is damaged, it hurts production and costs money. Camblin estimated that in the last two years trespassers have cost Wilbur Ranch approximately $250,000.
Individuals also damage sprinklers or redirect water or power to their camps.
“Walnuts are very sensitive,” Camblin said. “They can’t have too much water, they can’t be too dry – it’ll kill the tree.”
Along with obvious observable damage caused by trespassers, Camblin said what is more worrying is some of the not-as-obvious impacts.
“We find buckets of human waste out here, we find used syringes,” Camblin said.
Walnuts are picked off the ground and waste or trash in the dirt can affect the crop. Wilbur ships walnuts around the world that go into products like cookies or granola bars. Camblin said an E. coli outbreak that could be traced back to Wilbur would devastate the ranch.
“Enough million-dollar claims and we’d be out of business ... The exposure and the risk is so much greater when you have people defecating in your orchards and dumping trash,” Camblin said.
Camblin said the ranch has had to get creative to find ways to keep people out, but the trespassers are just as creative. The ranch has put out 72 concrete blocks and dug trenches to stop cars from driving into certain areas. Some blocks have been hauled away or trash has been dumped in a trench to allow for a car to drive over. Wilbur has spent thousands on security in the last few months in the form of gates, cameras and personnel.
“We cannot keep them out,” Camblin said. “...We have to keep getting more creative and more creative and we’re just going back and forth.”
Camblin led the way in his truck as visitors from the county followed and observed the burned security car, trash left where a camp was, burned vegetation and a woman camping in her car.
“It’s something that we’re aware of, it’s just a matter of resources,” Anderson said. “We don’t have the resources to dedicate, which is what it would take.”
He said he wished he had the budget to designate a task force whose sole focus would be on dealing with trespassing and camping on farms. Anderson said ballot initiatives and realignment at the state level which reclassified certain crimes as misdemeanors in an effort to relieve crowding in prisons are causing this problem on farms.
“This is how we addressed the overcrowding problem in prisons,” Anderson said.
Yuba County District Attorney Clint Curry said the state measures make it more difficult and complicated for his office to prosecute people. He said people engaging in this behavior know about resources available to help them.
“It’s hard because I think most people in our broader state and in our community just think ‘oh the homeless problem.’ The people that are down here I wouldn’t say they are homeless, they’re squatters and they’re choosing this lifestyle,” Curry said.
Kelli Evans is a farm owner in Sutter County and is on the Sutter County Resource Conservation District board. The district applies for grant money through CalRecycle that goes back to individual farms or ranches to help with clean up of illegal dumping and paying for security cameras, signs, fences and gates to prevent future trespassing.
Evans said an application is in the works for four sites in Yuba County, including Wilbur Ranch and that the Yuba County Resource Conservation District will know if the grant has been accepted sometime this month. Each county can receive up to $200,000 total and up to $50,000 per site.
She said the grant money is specifically for sites like Wilbur Ranch that have constant issues. If the grant is accepted it would be the first time ever that Yuba County would receive money from the state to deal with trespassing. Sutter County sites have received grant funding in the past.
Evans’ own almond and rice farm has experienced issues with illegal dumping and trespassing.
“The past year it’s really increased,” Evans said.