Imagine a homebuilder watching a community he built burned to rubble or a motorcycle mechanic seeing his custom bike crashed on its initial run – that is what it feels like to a cotton farmer when he sees his year's work in ruin at the hands of childish vandalism.
The cotton modules are a mainstay of the Gila Valley this time of year and are unmistakeable. While they may seem like the perfect playground, the costs of vandalism can run into thousands of dollars of damage and restitution. Seeing modules damaged this year is especially hard on the farmers, who have battled water availability and higher costs to bring in their crops. The tightly tarped modules represent hundreds of hours of work and are the livelihood of a segment of our community who farm nearly 24,000 acres of cotton fields throughout the Gila Valley each year.
To help keep vandalism at a minimum, VIP Farms owner Dennis Palmer has joined other farmers to offer a $5,000 reward to anyone who offers information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who cause damage to cotton modules or farm equipment. The cotton modules are worth between $8,000 to $12,000 a piece.
Palmer was spurred to offer the reward after two of his cotton modules in Pima were damaged by juvenile vandals Saturday. The juveniles' identity was quickly learned, and the two boys were apprehended and taken to the Eastern Arizona Regional Juvenile Detention Facility.
"We can't have this happening," Palmer said, "because the big thing is contamination (of) any plastic or anything that ends up in the cotton bale. They can trace that bale back through the module to the farmer, and there has been fines of up to $30,000 and more for a situation when they have plastic in these things."
If farmers are lucky enough to catch the vandalized cotton before it goes to gin, they may be able to salvage the undamaged crop, as Palmer did with his two damaged modules. In that case, the farmer and, ultimately, the convicted vandals only have to deal with the costs related to increased labor and time.
In a worst-case scenario, the polluted cotton could make it to mills, where it could damage machinery or create damaged clothing. That is where the main loss of income would arise, according to Palmer.
All the farms are private property, and those found messing with the modules will face charges for trespassing and criminal damage and would ultimately be responsible to pay all restitution costs. Children who damage cotton bales face having their parents pay restitution to the farmers.
"If this contamination gets into this cotton, we're tracking it back down, and they'll (vandals) be liable for it," Palmer said. "We work all year long to get this crop out, and to come back and see it partially destroyed is just awful."
Palmer encourages those who witness people vandalizing the modules to call 9-1-1 and report it.
"Everybody has a cell phone," Palmer said. "Christmas is coming up . . . If you give us that information and it goes to the arrest and conviction of these people, you've got $5,000 (for) Christmas money."