International criminal gangs have wised up to the advantages of leasing farm land to grow their illegal crops in Australia rather than risk buying the dirt.
Farm leasing provides them anonymity although it might not be enough to save the farm owners from jail time when they are caught.
That's the warning from federal authorities for farmers and absentee owners to wise up to their responsibilities when deciding to lease their ground.
They have busted a number of illegal growing operations in recent years where the property had been leased by an unsuspecting farmer.
Farmers are generally on high alert to those wanting to grow illegal crops like cannabis but more and more busts are being made on illicit tobacco being harvested on leased farms around the country.
It has been illegal to grow tobacco in Australia for more than a decade.
Organised crime syndicates supply and control the illicit tobacco market in Australia, which seeks to evade excise taxes worth millions of dollars.
The Australian Taxation Office is in charge of those tobacco busts and warn organised crime syndicates sometimes target unsuspecting landowners, attempting to lease land to grow illicit tobacco.
Just last week the joint taskforce involving operatives from the ATO, Australian Border Force and Victoria Police claim to have busted an organised crime syndicate after months of work.
That syndicate, mostly based in Victoria, was allegedly heavily involved in the domestic cultivation, manufacture, importation, distribution, and sale of illicit tobacco in Australia.
Illegal tobacco growing operations have been shut down in recent times in NSW, Northern Territory, Queensland and Victoria.
Just this year, multiple illicit tobacco crops throughout rural Victoria have been seized and destroyed.
Authorities claim most of these crops were were being grown on leased farms.
Illegal tobacco sales have also been targeted in Western Australia and South Australia.
After a Fremantle Port raid, police said criminal syndicates were smuggling cheap tobacco, largely from Indonesia, Malaysia and China, and selling it for sometimes half the cost of legal tobacco.
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Recent busts in NSW have included crops discovered at Thule, Kyalite, Koraleigh, the Snowy Valleys.
A recent raid at Linthorpe, west of Brisbane, authorities seized an estimated 25 tonnes of tobacco with a value of almost $40 million.
Victoria has been a popular target for gangs to grow tobacco at places like Broadford, Nhill, the Goulburn Valley although the Riverina areas seem most popular.
ATO assistant commissioner Jade Hawkins said they knew illicit tobacco growing operations are not run by the farmers.
"They are run by organised crime syndicates who evade tax, steal water, disregard regulations and do whatever it takes to grow their crop."
"These operations are not run by genuine farmers or landowners, but by criminals living and operating in local communities," a spokesman said.
A report in 2019 found almost a third of Australian farmers leased some land.
Lease rates are typically about five per cent of the land's value which makes it cheaper for the crime gangs to lease rather than buy but most times it was not the cost that prevents them buying farms.
Leasing can be much more attractive to criminals because they don't have to find the identification documents they would need to in a property transaction.
The farm owner needs to make sure who is leasing their land, and what for.
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Engaging in the illicit tobacco trade is a serious offence, the ATO says.
"If the landowner is found to be knowingly involved in illicit tobacco growing operations, they may face criminal charges along with the organised crime group undertaking the cultivation," the ATO spokesman said.
The ATO works with its agency partners like the police through the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce to detect, disrupt and dismantle these operations.
The ATO says there are a number of the warning signs where land is being used to grow, manufacture or produce illicit tobacco.
This includes circumstances where unsuspecting landowners or farmers are approached to lease land by dishonest individuals.
November to May is peak growing season for illicit tobacco crops.
Officials urge the community to look out for unusual farm works, earthworks along creeks or riverbeds and large, leafy plant crops that resemble kale, cabbage or corn.
"We use a range of investigative and legislative approaches to disrupt illicit tobacco activity," the spokesman said.
These include gathering intelligence, conducting investigations, working with law enforcement agencies as part of investigations and intelligence sharing then identifying, seizing and destroying identified crops, collecting evidence as part of prosecution activity and using the taxation and criminal laws to prosecute offenders.
If you suspect that illicit tobacco is being grown or manufactured in your community, you can confidentially report it to the ATO online at www.ato.gov.au/tipoff or by calling 1800 060 062.
Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential report online at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au.