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FARMERS TAKE DESPERATE MEASURES TO PROTECT THEIR CROPS FROM THIEVES

The battle of the potatoes continues on Slovak fields

THE SUMMER has once again become a period characterised by farmers struggling to protect their
fields against attacks by potato thieves, while present legislation fails to provide effective assistance in that
effort.
On July 23, police caught a group of seven potato thieves, aged 19 to 39, on a field in Dražkovce, a village in
Central Slovakia. The men had collected as much as 720 kilos of potatoes between midnight and 4am, when
police officers detained them.
Reports of similar cases have come throughout the summer from different parts of the country. Farmers claim
that most perpetrators are from the Roma minority, who often readily admit their criminal actions, saying that
they are driven by despair.

THE SUMMER has once again become a period characterised by farmers struggling to protect their fields

against attacks by potato thieves, while present legislation fails to provide effective assistance in that effort.

On July 23, police caught a group of seven potato thieves, aged 19 to 39, on a field in Dražkovce, a village in

Central Slovakia. The men had collected as much as 720 kilos of potatoes between midnight and 4am, when

police officers detained them.

Reports of similar cases have come throughout the summer from different parts of the country. Farmers claim

that most perpetrators are from the Roma minority, who often readily admit their criminal actions, saying that

they are driven by despair.

"We are forced to steal, because when a person lives honestly, he has nothing. The people in government do the

same," said Dezider Lacko, member of the municipal council in the village of Jarovnice, for private TV Markíza.

Many farmers complain that the thieves know the law and send their children, who cannot be held legally

responsible, to steal. Even sanctions for adults caught stealing are not harsh enough to deter criminals, according

to local residents in affected areas.

"They know that nothing will happen to them," Radka Piteľová, a farming expert from the Dražkovce farming

cooperative, told the state-run TASR news agency.

Legislators have already tried to address the problem of potato theft through an amendment to the penal code in

November 2000, and a further one in the summer of 2001.

Taking crops of any value from farmland is a criminal offence. In contrast, if the value of other unlawfully

gained items does not exceed a defined minimum, the perpetrator's actions are seen as just a misdemeanour.

Agricultural products, along with game and fish, thus enjoy special protection.

Farmers are allowed to detain thieves they catch on the fields until police arrive. Now, some officials are calling

for a regulation that would put more power in the hands of landowners.

"I, and the majority of my colleagues, feel that we should adopt more effective measures that would enable

citizens to defend their property," said Roman Vavrík, MP for the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union

(SDKÚ), for SME.

Opposition MP Gustáv Krajči went so far as to say that people should be allowed to shoot at trespassers in their

fields.

In a rare incident, a Detva farmer recently shot at a man that he found in his field. The farmer claimed that the

trespasser had failed to respond to orders to stand still, and tried to run into a nearby forest. The suspected thief

was shot in the shoulder when the property owner fired what he described as warning shots in the air, reported

TASR.

In some places, farmers are spending large sums to pay security services to protect their crops.

"Last year we spent around Sk500,000 (€11,800) on protection, the year before around Sk980,000 (€23,200).

This year we don't have the money for that," said Pavel Benč, head of a farming cooperative in Kežmarok for

Slovak Television (STV).

In places where paying a security service is not an option, it is up to locals to make sure no one steals their

potatoes - or up to the local Roma population.

"The fields are protected by local Roma during the potato harvest. People hire them and let them dig out a part of

the harvest as a reward. We have had fewer thefts since then. Before, potatoes were being stolen extensively,"

said Ladislav Mešár, mayor of the Podhorany village for the regional daily Tatranský Korzár.

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