ESCALON, Calif. — The soaring value of California’s nut crops is attracting a new breed of thieves who have been making off with the pricey commodities by the truckload, recalling images of cattle rustlers of bygone days.
This harvest season in the Central Valley, thieves cut through a fence and hauled off $400,000 in walnuts. An additional $100,000 in almonds was stolen by a driver with a fake license. And $100,000 in pistachios was taken by a big rig driver who left a farm without filling out any paperwork.
Investigators suspect low-level organized crime may have a hand in cases, while some pilfered nuts are ending up in Los Angeles for resale at farmers markets or disappear into the black market.
Domestic demand for specialty foods and an expanding Asian market for them have prompted a nut orchard boom in the state’s agricultural heartland. Such heists have become so common that an industry taskforce recently formed to devise ways to thwart thieves.
“The Wild West is alive and well in certain aspects,” said Danielle Oliver of the California Farm Bureau. “There’s always someone out there trying to make a quick dollar on somebody else’s hard work.”
Amid the nut boom, farmers have torn out vineyards and other crops to plant nut trees to keep up with demand. Real estate firms, retirement funds and insurance companies have taken note by adding almonds, walnut and pistachio land to diversify their portfolios.
As the nation’s top nut producer, the state grows more almonds and pistachios than any other country. Only China produces more walnuts, which have nearly tripled in price in the last five years to about $2 a pound, according to the California Walnut Board.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that through 2012 the state’s almond crop was valued at $5 billion per year, pistachios were over $1 billion and walnuts were over $1.5 billion.
“Right now, everybody wants to be a nut grower because it’s kind of like the gold rush of the 1850s,” said Ripon almond farmer Kevin Fondse of Fondse Brothers Inc. “Everybody wants the gold.”
That frenzy has spawned crime. Growers and nut processors say they have been so hard hit in the past year that a coalition of nut associations formed a taskforce in October to seek the advice of law enforcement and to create an eight-step checklist for growers and nut processors.
The list includes fingerprinting drivers, taking their photos and calling the broker to confirm that the paperwork is legitimate. Such common-sense steps can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in vanishing cargo.