At a time when property crimes are rising and law enforcement resources are stretched thin, a rural neighborhood watch group that has helped the Sheriff's Department protect farms in the northwest quadrant of Petaluma for the past two decades needs new leadership.

"We're getting older and we need younger volunteers to keep this much-needed organization going," said Petaluma resident Annette Goltermann, a founding member of the well-known community group Leghorn Valley Farm Watch. "If someone doesn't take over, everyone's going to forget the whole routine, the sheriff is going to forget who we are, and we'll lose some of our community identify, crime prevention and safety."

Leghorn Valley Farm Watch was formed in 1993 by a group of residents in the unincorporated area just north of Petaluma's city limits. The area, 171-square miles of farm land, relies on the County Sheriff's Department for protection and residents said they felt disconnected from local officials and deputies.

But under the leadership of the plucky Goltermann, neighbors began meeting at least once a week to discuss their concerns, police the neighborhood, work on safety projects and learn skills like amateur emergency radio operation.

"Every Tuesday night a group of us from Skillman Lane and the surrounding area met at 7:30 at Annette's (Goltermann) and discussed things and talked to the city and county officials," said longtime member Jack Krout. "Not that the bigwigs always listened, but we talked to them. It wound up bringing us together."

Pretty soon, the group established a solid reputation with the Sheriff's Department, helping on cases like the "jogging burglar," who repeatedly broke into farms in the Leghorn Valley in the 1990s.

"They never did catch him," said Goltermann. "But since then we've found prostitution rings, we've alerted deputies to (agriculture) crimes like stolen copper wire and stolen farm equipment, we're all CPR-trained and we have a representative on the Zone 2A flood board because of our work mapping (in the flood plain). We've been active on many fronts."

Deputy Tony King, a property crimes detective with the Sheriff's Department, said Farm Watch members go the extra mile in terms of looking out for one another — something he called very important when the theft of one piece of farm equipment can set a small farmer back as much as $500,000.

"They meet to keep up on what's going on, they let us know about problems in their area and they provide an extra set of eyes out there," said King. "They really care. We want people like them reporting on things so that we can act on them."

But now, Farm Watch members are getting older and Goltermann has found herself searching for someone new to take over.

"I told the group a year ago that I couldn't keep going and wanted someone new to run it," said Goltermann. "I've been looking for someone to take this huge responsibility because I believe in the organization."

For King, Goltermann has left some huge shoes to fill.

"I'm at a loss for words to explain the impact she and her family have made," said King. "To say that they're wonderful isn't enough. I surely hope that someone will keep the ball rolling."

King recalled an encounter he had recently with a young couple who had just moved to the area and were surprised to find their neighbors very interested in what they were doing.

"They were a couple of hippie kids planning to do a legal marijuana grow," said King. "They asked me who this group of 'nosy' neighbors was. I told them, 'they're your neighbors, they're called Farm Watch and you better get used to them caring about what's going on in their neighborhood'."

King, whose department offers many services to the farming community, said that getting together with neighbors once a month can make a huge difference in both rural and urban neighborhood safety.

"If you get to know your neighbors a bit, they are much more likely to call the cops if they see someone strange around your place," he said. "That's what Farm Watch does and I hope that someone else carries it on. It's really invaluable."

But several members wonder who will step forward to take Goltermann's place: Krout, who is 89 years old, said he and his wife are slowing down and spending more time travelling.

"The other members are a bunch of school kids in their '60s," Krout said half-jokingly. "But even they are getting old. We need younger people that are interested in the community to keep an eye on each other and help out. It keeps us in touch with the county and the city. We all live outside city limits and we have to have a group that keeps the officials' attention."

Fellow member Sue Hess said that without a leader like Goltermann, she sees the group evolving. "Maybe it will have to be something we keep up online," she said. "We're really falling apart as a group since no one wants to lead anymore. Annette (Goltermann) was the connection to the sheriff and the fire departments. She's a hard act to follow."

Goltermann admitted that her post isn't easy. "It could be another full-time job," she said. "But if it doesn't keep going, it's the residents who will lose out."

For information on how to get involved, email the Leghorn Valley Farm Watch at leghornvalleyfarmwatch@aol.com.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)