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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Burglary at The Outback impedes harvest work

The Outback Farm, a joint program of the Associated Students and Fairhaven College, attracts all types of students, staff, community members and, apparently, thieves. On Sunday, July 9, a shed in the community garden of Western’s Outback Farm was broken into and around eight tools were stolen.

“We’ve never had a break-in of this size. This the first time we’ve ever had to deal with something like this,” AS Outback Coordinator Madeleine Price said. “Frankly, it just feels like people are not respecting what we’re doing. We’re students but also, this is our profession.”

Immediately after discovering the break-in, The Outback opened a case with University Police in hopes of recovering their stolen equipment.

The stolen property included garden pruners, tools for digging out weeds, a power drill, a weed whacker, a circular saw and a scythe, with the overall estimated value being in the hundreds, Price said. The Outback immediately began to feel the impact of this loss.

“We’re going to have to do some pretty major replenishing of our tool stock, which is going to be pretty expensive to do,” Price said.

“We’ve never had a break-in of this size. This the first time we’ve ever had to deal with something like this. Frankly, it just feels like people are not respecting what we’re doing. We’re students but also, this is our profession.”

Madeleine Price, AS Outback Coordinator

Western’s five-acre farm and wetland restoration site offers students an opportunity to learn about and implement sustainable land use practices through their Outdoor Experiential Learning Program. It started as a way to educate the community about conservation, restoration and farming, AS Environmental & Sustainability Programs Director Katie Winkelman said. Now,  Winkelman says that The Outback will have to deal with being under-equipped for dealing with weeds and thistles, a type of invasive noxious weed, in the forthcoming season.

“Basically we don’t have tools during our busiest season of the year,” Winkelman said. “July, August, September and October are when we harvest the most and that’s also when thistles are beginning to flower the most.”

Over the years, The Outback has become increasingly familiar with vandalism and theft. Former Outback coordinator Kamea Black said she had to deal with numerous incidents of vandalism and theft during her time at Western.

“Things just disappear a lot,” Black said. “We’d have our batteries, measuring tapes, broadfork go missing. Those are really important to how we work out there.”

Although these types of incidents have happened in the past, Black said the worst up until now had been the destruction of, and theft from, a Common Threads Farm Camp storage container.

“We’re kind of led to believe that it wasn’t somebody who had access to the keys or knew a lot about the toolbox because a lot of the drawers were pried open, so they probably were searching for something specific,” Winkelman said.

While the lock on the community garden shed was replaced on Monday, July 17, The Outback hopes to increase their security even more in order to avoid these types of incidents. But this feat may be easier said than done, as the farm has no source of electricity to power a potential security or lighting system.

A broken lock at the Outback Farm. // Photo by Langston Thomas

“We have suggested safety measures in the past — perhaps doing motion sensor floodlights or something like that to deter people,” Winkelman said. “But moving forward we’re thinking that we might have some motion cams that they use for wildlife, so then at least we can perhaps catch people on film.”

Because The Outback is in such a secluded location and lacks significant lighting, Black would often take extra precautions when staff were working late.

“I always made sure my staff didn’t work after dark,” Black said. “Yes, work when it’s comfortable but I don’t want people hanging out [at the farm] after dark.”

With just under a century of history to its name, The Outback Farm is one of Western’s oldest and most active outdoor programs. Although the amount of time and money needed to replace the stolen property is currently unknown, Price said there are plans to replace the power tools and other smaller essential items, but more expensive tools such as the scythe will be harder to replace.

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