by TERESA SCHIFFER
Here in Polk County, agriculture is big business. Nearly half of Polk’s land area is devoted to agriculture, which is over half a million acres. This usage accounts for about 25% of the county’s business revenue. This includes citrus groves, aquaculture, cattle ranches, and more. With such a large percentage of the workforce dependent on agriculture (about one third of Polk County’s total employment, or 86,000 jobs), it stands to reason that these resources are worth protecting.
For this reason, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office has an Agricultural Crimes Unit to help protect the county’s agricultural assets. Farmers, ranchers, and deputies work together to ensure that criminal activity is kept at a minimum. The unit is composed of nine Agricultural Crimes detectives, two Marine Unit deputies, three Environmental Crimes detectives, and three supervisors (two Sergeants and a Lieutenant). Sheriff Grady Judd is well-known for his no-nonsense approach to crime, and his “zero tolerance” policy extends to the Ag Unit as well.
The Agricultural Crimes Unit is tasked with helping to protect hundreds of square miles worth of property, so it comes as no surprise that they work closely with farmers and ranchers. The team works hard to cultivate relationships that help bolster the security of Polk County’s agricultural resources. For example, deputies attend all of the Polk County Cattlemen’s Association and Polk County Farm Bureau board meetings, where they give updates and state-of-the-county reports.
Sergeant Paul Wright is proud of how well-connected the unit is to the community. He tells us, “The ranchers in our county have all of the mobile phone numbers for the unit deputies and supervisors – we are always available to them, even if it’s just to listen. We go the extra mile. When someone in the community has a problem or issue that some law enforcement officers in other counties might find trivial, we take it seriously and try to remedy it if we can. We are the best of the best!”
The Agricultural Crimes Unit also has some specialized equipment on hand to help them perform their duties. This includes several different types of watercraft, all-terrain vehicles, swamp buggies, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft. This helps the deputies access whatever part of the county they need to complete their investigations. Ag Unit deputies also receive specialized training for different aspects of the job, such as certified livestock cruelty investigators.
One of the most gratifying aspects of the job for Sergeant Wright is the relationships that he and the other deputies build with ranchers and farmers. They make themselves available so that people will feel comfortable coming to them with any problems or suspicions they may have. The agency-wide motto is, “If you see something, or hear something, say something.” The Ag Unit wants people to know that they will respond quickly and effectively to any concerns.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office takes crime seriously, and that certainly applies to agricultural crime. They have the resources and manpower to combat any threat to a rancher’s security. The Sheriff’s Office appreciates the cooperation of ranchers and residents to help keep everyone safe. Few people value the importance of land stewardship like ranchers and farmers, so having the law on their side to help defend against those with nefarious designs is an ideal situation.
There are a wide range of common agricultural crimes, ranging from vandalism, to stolen copper wire, to missing persons, and disaster relief efforts. Some of the things that cattle ranchers need to be on the lookout for are trespassing, theft of calves, cows, or equipment, and damage to fences. If there are signs of unwelcome visitors, or missing property, ranchers should call the deputies right away.
The Agricultural Crimes Unit is here for the protection of ranchers and farmers. They are supported by the entire Polk County Sheriff’s Office, making for quite a force to be reckoned with in the face of any adversity. These dedicated men and women ensure that Polk County’s agricultural properties are well looked after and that ranchers and farmers always have someone to turn to for help.