(THE NEWS/files) Country Fest is two-day fair that takes place every year in Maple Ridge at the end of July.

MacDuff’s Call: Lorraine, protector of Country Fest

Agricultural association bearing the brunt of thefts

Prior to heading off on vacation I dropped by the Albion Fairgrounds to assist Lorraine Bates, executive director of the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Agriculture Association, and her Country Fest team, busy with preparations for the two-day fair that takes place every year at the end of July.

Lorraine depends on summer students, sport teams, volunteers and the support of the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre staff and inmates, as well as city workers to prepare the grounds for Country Fest every year, which is a huge undertaking.

Preparation needs to start weeks in advance in order to ensure the grounds are ready for the arrival of the 4-H Club members, exhibitors, performers and other attractions as they start to arrive a few days prior to the fair.

Lorraine is proud that Country Fest continues to offer free gate entry and has been voted top fair in B.C. a number of times. She never wants to dwell on how many times, as she is more proud of the fact the fair is continually recognized for its outstanding education programming that promotes agriculture.

Lorraine knows that to promote agriculture and retain the free gate status, the fair has to rely heavily on the volunteers, support from local businesses, gaming funds and other donations. And every year, without fail, the community steps up to help, which has enabled our grassroots fair to evolve into a community event we can all be proud of.

However, while speaking with Lorraine about all of the work she and the others had done over the course of the days leading up to the fair, I learned that she, for the first time, was having to sleep at the fairgrounds for two weeks prior to the fair, in order to deter the amount of theft that was taking place through the night and in the early morning hours.

Lorraine’s team goes to great effort to make the fairgrounds look attractive, which is assisted by the use of large wooden planters that are adorned with flowers or vegetables representative of the agricultural bounty the fair is honouring. Unfortunately, other people also love these amazing planters, to the point that they felt they needed to steal five of them over the course of a few nights during the weeks prior to the fair.

That is until Lorraine, along with her family dog, took up residence in the fairgrounds’ office trailer and moved all of the planters within close proximity to the trailer in an effort to ward off the thieves, which she knew had to be more than one person, as the planters are too heavy for a single person to move.

Now I don’t know about you, but being one-woman, one-dog security system is not something I would ever consider doing, especially knowing the dog has a bark bigger than its bite.

Yet Lorraine felt she had no choice as she has to operate the fair on a tight budget to maintain the free gate status and she could only afford to increase her security budget to cover Thursday night to Sunday, which was already two days longer than she typically had to pay for.

The RCMP did offer to do drive-pasts and park in the area to do their paper work, which gave her some comfort. But she knew the people stealing the planters and attempting other thefts were always watching for opportunities, so once the police would leave, she was sure they would strike, which they did.

They attempted to break into the kitchen, where all of the donated food to cover volunteer snacks is stored. But they could not get past the security bolt and only damaged the hinges.

Lorraine’s presence and the dog barking most likely prevented them from returning that night with the proper tools. But the Monday after the fair was over, although not completely cleaned up, Lorraine took the night to refresh herself at home and they returned with the proper tools and stole about $500 worth of food.

Oddly, three bales of hay were stolen from the 4-H barn, which a volunteer spotted being towed down 104th Avenue by an individual on a bike with a homemade bike trailer.

Not a huge loss, but the hay is paid for by 4-H club members, which is a youth group, so it is a cost that is still a hardship.

Lorraine confronted another individual on a bike trying to make off with a metal livestock feeding can, which is also an expensive item the 4-H club would have had to replace.

The gentleman who tried to steal it said he needed it for gas and was planning on returning it later, since she had already made him dump out the other items he had loaded in the bucket. Thankfully, he complied.

Lorraine’s account of the actions she had to take this year to protect the interests of the fair, which I barely touched on, is unfortunately reflective of the world we live in. If property is not nailed down, locked up or guarded, it is ripped off and sold on sites such as Craigslist, or by traditional means – trading to drug dealers for drugs (probably not the case for the hay, though), and selling stolen goods out of car trunks and flea markets, or through more sophisticated criminal organizations that liquidate stolen merchandise.

As far as Lorraine’s situation, she took a stand and got some resolve to the larger theft issues she faced, but she should never have had to resort to putting herself at risk.

Country Fest went on to be a success, as it always does, but like so many other people and businesses that are bearing the brunt of thefts, Lorraine is tired. Perhaps it is time to ask our politicians if they, too, are tired of a society that perpetuates the need for theft by those who are struggling and enables organized criminals to prey upon vulnerable people and the rest of us and whether they are ready to do something about it.

Cheryl Ashlie is a former Maple Ridge school trustee, city councillor, constituency assistant and former citizen of the year.

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