Thieves wiping out gardeners' hard-earned harvest
Published: Friday, January 17, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2014 at 6:16 p.m.
Giacomo Ciani and his wife, Ilaria, thought their recent harvest would be a success.
The University of Florida Police Department is investigating numerous thefts at the University of Florida Organic Gardens Cooperative off Southwest 23rd Terrace. If you have any information about these incidents, contact Detective Brian Ausgood at 392-4705.
For months, the couple tended to vegetable rows on their plot at the University of Florida Organic Gardens Cooperative. By late fall, their plot sprang to life. They had beets, broccoli and even Swiss chards, an elusive vegetable they struggled to grow in the past.
In mid-December, however, Ciani, a 35-year-old UF physics assistant scientist and co-president of the cooperative, found two vegetable rows uprooted from his plot, including the Swiss chards.
"They were completely and systematically emptied," he said recently.
The couple aren't alone.
Since November, thieves have raided the gardens a number of times at 2617 SW 23rd Terrace, stealing turnips, lettuce and other vegetables and trampling on dozens of the 115 plots at the garden, including the couple's plot they've gardened on since 2011.
Gardeners don't know who is stealing or damaging their crops, but as the culprits remain at large, the raids continue.
This past weekend, the thieves struck again. This time, Ciani and his wife lost three large broccoli heads, which were "pretty much all that was left to steal in our garden."
The first reported theft occurred Nov. 17. A woman complained that two rows of mature green cabbage and other plants had disappeared from her plot.
That prompted Ciani to send an email to gardeners, explaining the incident and reminding them of the cooperative's theft and security guidelines.
"We all know how much time and hard work we put in our plots," he wrote. "We should all try to do our best to make the entire community a more productive, safe, enjoyable and fun place."
UF students, faculty and local residents have grown vegetables at the cooperative since 1972, said Ginny Campbell, plot coordinator. In 1998, the cooperative moved from Radio Road, east of Southwest 34th Street, to its current location off Southwest 23rd Terrace, about a quarter mile south of Archer Road.
The 2.4-acre garden on UF property is open to the public. Gardeners can rent a 12-by-25-foot plot for $15 for six months. The rent money is used to buy tools and seeds for gardeners to use.
Many gardeners rent a plot to grow their own food, Campbell said.
In the past five years, she said she has seen an increase in the number of undergraduate students active in the cooperative, which includes a high number of international students.
In the weeks after Ciani's email, the raids became more frequent. Gardeners reported more crops and plants missing from their plots.
Ciani kept a log each time someone reported stolen goods from his or her plot. Most entries included the specific crop missing. Some had possible clues to the thieves.
A Nov. 19 entry mentioned footprints found on a plot. Another on Nov. 24 stated the garden's front gate had been broken after dark. A third on Nov. 29 noted a suspicious couple trying to get into the garden's tool shed.
Campbell, 60, has gardened for almost two decades. People often took a carrot or head of broccoli from plots in the past, she said, but those thefts were "nothing like this."
She added that the raids have discouraged some gardeners from continuing their work, which consists of planting, watering and harvesting their plots throughout the year.
"It's commitment, and a lot of hard work, but it's rewarding," she said. "Then you come out one day, and it's gone. What the thieves and vandals are doing is totally disrespectful to the community."
Some gardeners had their crops stolen multiple times during different raids.
Galyna Vakulenko, an adjunct assistant in UF's chemistry department, said thieves stole from her on more than four occasions. She grows vegetables across three plots to feed her family.
"I work hard in the garden to get good vegetables and greens," she said. "I was really disappointed about this situation."
Until the thieves are caught and the raids stop, Vakulenko said she will plant crops that don't require much work, such as pumpkins.
The thefts have caught the attention of the University Police Department.
UPD spokesman Maj. Brad Barber said the department has increased patrols near the cooperative and assigned a detective to investigate the thefts.
He added that the garden's frequent raids were something the department hasn't encountered before.
"It's unique, given the circumstance," he said.
Barber couldn't speculate on why the thieves had targeted the cooperative and its crops. Gardeners, however, say they believe the thieves are stealing their vegetables and selling them to local markets based on how much has been taken so far.
"The volume is too much," said Troy Auffenberg, a 49-year-old business manager for laboratories at UF Health Shands Hospital and greenhouse manager for the cooperative. "They're reselling it. They're taking too much at one time."
As UPD continues its investigation, Ciani said he and the gardeners are optimistic the raids will stop with help from police. However, if the problem continues, Ciani said he might stop gardening.
"Certainly, if this doesn't happen in a few weeks' time frame, and the thefts go on unpunished, then we will probably seriously consider quitting altogether," he said.
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