Almond theft: Tough cases for growers to crack
With the almond harvest well under way in the Central Valley, growers and sheriff's deputies are renewing their efforts to combat the increasing problem of stolen almonds.
The farmers and officers are working together to develop information that may lead to suspects as well as prevent further thefts.
The ACTION (Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network) Project recently reported that during the 2005-06 crop year, more than $1.3 million worth of almonds were stolen from growers and shippers in the San Joaquin Valley. Truckload after truckload, thieves allegedly trespassed onto properties, cut fences and broke locks to get to the valuable nuts. Sheriff's deputies say thieves hot-wired several tractor-trailers around the Central Valley and were able to flee with almonds that were awaiting shipment overseas.
"These guys know exactly what they are doing. They are experienced in handling truckloads of commodities and come with the specific intent of stealing truckloads of almonds," said Cliff Emery, ACTION Project agricultural crime specialist. "Right now they are targeting the finished product that is ready to go to an end user. If the price for almonds escalates, they could target field product."
California almond growers in 2004-05 produced $2.2 billion worth of almonds. This harvest season began in mid-August in the southern San Joaquin Valley-about two weeks later than average.
Emery said that the rash of thefts began last year with a theft of two container loads of almonds taken from a location at the Merced-Madera county line. Shortly after, two more container loads were nabbed in Livingston in Merced County. About a month after that theft, thieves hit again in Denair in Stanislaus County.
Scott Phippen, president of Travaville and Phippen Inc., a grower, packer and shipper of almonds in Manteca, was victimized in July. He had two finished container loads of about 44,000 pounds each of almonds waiting at his San Joaquin County facility to be transported to the Port of Oakland.
"We had some loads scheduled for transport following July 4th week, but because that week was compressed, there were two days that the port wasn't going to be open," Phippen said. "The trucking company asked us if we could prepare two of the loads."
Because traffic was tied up in the Bay Area due to the holiday, Phippen said he had to wait before sending the two container loads.
"Typically we don't load a container unless it is going to leave that day," Phippen said. "What we should have done and what I would advise anybody to do is if a container doesn't go, unload it. Put it back in the warehouse even though it takes some time."
Phippen hooked his two truck tractors underneath the two containers and locked them, thinking that would be an adequate precaution.
"I know now that it is very easy to hot-wire a diesel truck. The thieves broke into our fence that night and found the two loaded containers hooked to the two trucks, hot-wired them, cut the bolts to the lock on our main gate and just drove them out. They took them to a truck stop and traded them with their truck tractors and took them away."
With the price of almonds in the range of $3 per pound and 44,000 pounds in each load, Phippen experienced a loss of about $264,000. Fortunately the almonds were insured.
Almond growers met with law enforcement and insurance company representatives last month at the Almond Board of California office in Modesto. While there, they discussed commonalities of the various almond container thefts and worked toward developing a prevention plan.
Tips to prevent thefts
Insurance company representatives, law enforcement officials and other rural crime experts offer these tips to help almond growers prevent thefts:
- Do not leave a container loaded with almonds unless the truck is going directly to the port that same day. If it is not possible to transport the container, unload its contents until it is ready to go to the port, or park the load in a locked warehouse. To prevent containers from being left unattended, ensure that the trucking company takes the load directly to the port.
- Ensure that the farm's security system is updated and working properly. With security cameras, see that the cameras are in good working order and are mounted in locations that will be able to record any suspicious activity. Install motion detector lights nearby so that the camera can take a clear picture of the suspect at night.
- Consider hiring security guards, especially during nighttime hours. When choosing a security guard, be sure candidates provide references.
- Fully understand your insurance policy. Know where your liability begins and ends. Check with your insurer to clarify any unknowns and to ask questions.
- Do not become an easy target. Take every step you can to avoid becoming a victim. Develop close relationships with local law enforcement and report any thefts or suspicious activity.
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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