Ag at Large: Water leaves a mark on farm equipment

SmartWater is a traceable liquid used by local law enforcement agencies to track down thieves. COURTESY OF SMARTWATER

Theft of tractors and other equipment has become a huge factor in California’s farm country, but a subtle new means of identifying property is causing severe frustration among thieves.

It takes no more than a quick swipe (no pun intended) of the material called SmartWater to leave a permanent identification mark on almost any kind of material or property. The marked item may become dust-covered, rusty, torn or worn, but the identification remains.

Law enforcement officers, especially in the Central Valley, swear by it. They have recovered dozens of expensive and hard-to-replace pieces of equipment in just the short time the compound has been available. They are encouraging wide use by farmers and others whose property or equipment might be exposed or stored in open areas.

Sheriff’s deputies know how much effort is expended by the thieves of equipment and copper to steal something they can turn into cash. They have also seen the frustration and disappointment by apprehended thieves when something they have worked hard to steal has no value to them because its rightful owner is clearly identified.

The SmartWater application is subtle, but unmistakable. The property owner who applies it, and perhaps a witness or two, are the only ones who know it has become part of the property in question. Whenever necessary they can point a law enforcement officer to it, show him or her the record of purchase on file and, voila, return of the stolen item is assured.

The SmartWater technology is the output of a company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The compound, called a forensic liquid, comes in a small bottle, vial or pouch available from the supplier. Purchase includes automatic registration of the material’s one-of-a-kind identification characteristics.

Recording a purchase of the liquid with local law enforcement keeps its identity local. But the company maintains a computerized file of each container, which can be referred to whenever necessary.

Further frustration of thieves can occur when SmartWater is applied as a spray to protect a sensitive area, especially a closed or confined space. Properly armed, a non-lethal spurt of the tell-tale fluid will dampen an intruder. The distinctive and irrefutable identity characteristic of the fluid not only attaches to face, hands, clothing or covering of anyone who invades the space, but lasts for a long time.

Just as it clings to equipment and property the liquid can become part of a person or his clothing for months, undetected until the proper ultraviolet light reveals it. Banks are considering installation at tellers’ windows where it can be dispensed if a robber demands cash.

After the sheriff’s department in Tulare County endorsed the use of SmartWater, a small vial was offered to about 500 farmers and others considered vulnerable to theft of their equipment and property. In about a year and a half, the markings the property owners applied have resulted in a large number of apprehensions, a significant amount of returned property and a marked reduction in the rate of thefts.

Word of the compound’s effect has spread among the lawbreaker community, with the help of signs and notifications at jail facilities. The more the thieves know about SmartWater the less they like it, and the greater their efforts to avoid it.

Its use is not universal, but Tulare, Madera and Merced County Sheriff’s Departments are using it, as others are considering it. For many farmers in the three counties, SmartWater is the intelligent answer to thefts.