Deputies check into large-scale walnut thefts
By Christine Souza
They're being stolen by the bagful, by the carful, even by the truckload. As demand and prices have risen, walnuts have become more attractive to thieves. Farmers throughout California walnut-growing regions report being victims, and at least one county has enacted a new ordinance intended to make it harder to sell stolen walnuts.
"All nut commodities are high (in price) right now, so you have to protect what's yours," said Tehama County Sheriff's Detective Chad Parker, who is currently investigating multiple walnut theft cases.
Since late October, at least two walnut companies have learned of the thefts of several truckloads of walnuts—valued at several hundred thousand dollars—from contracted freight carriers presenting proper credentials. Authorities said they may be two of several incidents that have happened recently in more than one California county.
Diamond Foods Inc. reported last week that two shipments of its products did not arrive at their intended destination. The shipments were picked up from the company's Stockton facility by "contract freight carriers with proper credentials," said Diamond Foods spokesman Stephen Sibert. He said Diamond is "cooperating with local law enforcement authorities who are investigating this issue as well as our brokers and their insurance providers to remedy this situation."
The Tehama County Sheriff's Department is investigating the theft of two truckloads of walnuts—one load processed and the other load unprocessed—reported during the week of Oct. 22. The nuts were picked up from Crain Walnut Shelling Inc. in Los Molinos but did not arrive at final destinations in Florida and Texas. The combined loss is estimated at $300,000.
"In both instances, the driver presented the correct purchase order numbers when picking up the loads," Parker said.
Crain Walnut Shelling Chief Financial Officer Mike Wallace said the company had already beefed up its procedures after similar thefts occurred last year. Wallace said he believes that security procedures will need to be further scrutinized and strengthened.
"If you are working with a logistics company or if it is this kind of set up, you want to make sure that that logistics company has contingent freight insurance above the value of your load," Wallace said. "These goods are not coming back and these guys are not going to stop doing this."
Numerous loads of different types of processed and unprocessed nut commodities were reported stolen throughout the state last year, Parker said, including from Kings, Fresno and Tehama counties.
Parker said he is also following up on reports of smaller-scale walnut thefts.
"We have had several other walnut thefts that are just the small guys raking up nuts," Parker said. "We're out almost a ton of walnuts that have been raked up. The nuts go to other counties and are being sold on the side of the road."
Walnut grower Joe Martinez of Winters said a problem in parts of California is advertisements announcing "cash for walnuts."
"Last year, I had a walnut theft valued in the neighborhood of about $5,000. The thief had been caught and we learned that somebody had been paying cash for the stolen nuts and then reselling them for a higher price to a processor," Martinez said. "This is happening again this year. Just like with stolen metal: As long as somebody will buy them, they will keep stealing them."
Grower Eric Heinrich of Modesto, who works for his family's walnut operation and huller and dehydrator, described theft as a chronic problem.
"We have one ranch on a busy corner. We went out to harvest it and found 50-pound gunnysacks full of walnuts placed up into the trees. I'm guessing they already had all they could handle in their car and were planning to come back," Heinrich said.
He said that incident may have caused a loss of about $375. Although that amount doesn't seem like much, he noted he's unsure of how many times that happens in a season, and added that the higher walnut price this year—about $1.50 per pound—may be enticing thieves.
"The walnut price is better than what it's been in the past. You are looking at $1-plus walnuts this year. There's definitely some value there," Heinrich said.
To assist in preventing sale of stolen walnuts to roadside vendors, Tulare County amended a county ordinance to require anyone selling any amount of walnuts to have proof of ownership. It also mandates that roadside stands may not operate in Tulare County until a "Walnut Buying Period," as established by the agricultural commissioner, is in effect. That happens after Nov. 1, when most of the commercial walnut harvest has ended.
As a result of these changes, the Tulare County Sheriff's Department estimated that walnut thefts are down by at least half.
To make it more difficult for thieves to steal truckloads of nut crops, Tehama County detective Parker suggested that growers and processors take extra steps to record the identity of truck drivers by taking a driver's photograph, recording his thumbprints, and recording or photographing his driver's license number. Also, digitally photograph the truck, including the truck's state and federal registration numbers and license plates, to make sure everything is well documented, he said. For other tips, contact local law enforcement or the county rural crime task force.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.