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Walnut farmers encounter thieves amid big harvest

Issue Date: October 28, 2020
By Christine Souza
Farmer John Amarel says he and his rural neighbors near Yuba City have encountered more people trespassing into orchards this year to help themselves to walnuts. To prevent these thefts, he and others are posting more No Trespassing signs and staying vigilant to keep unauthorized people out of orchards.
Photo/Christine Souza
Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau Executive Director Justine Dutra gives a No Trespassing sign to farmer John Amarel to post outside his walnut orchard near Yuba City. County Farm Bureaus offer the signs for sale to their members as a crime-prevention measure.
Photo/Christine Souza

Many people love walnuts—and some love them so much that they trespass into orchards and do a little illegal harvesting of their own. Farmers say in a year when they expect to receive low prices, they can't afford to lose more of their crop to thieves.

Yuba City-area walnut grower John Amarel said since harvest began in mid-September, he and his neighbors have encountered more people trespassing in orchards, filling bag after bag—and carload after carload—with a portion of the season's crop, one of the highest-grossing commodities in the region.

"We were working, and the neighbors called to say, 'Hey, there's somebody in your orchard,' or we would drive by and see somebody in the orchard," Amarel said. "We came out and told them that they had to leave. The first time, there were two cars of families and another time a car with a lady and her mom. They were picking walnuts as fast as they could. Their reasoning was that it is OK to pick the walnuts because they were on the ground. I told them we haven't harvested them yet, and reminded them that they were trespassing and can't be on our property."

Brian Greathouse of Sacramento Valley Walnut Growers, a grower-owned processor and marketer, said losses from theft have become more important this year.

"They aren't worth a lot, but we can't afford to lose any walnuts," Greathouse said.

"I've stopped two or three people and they've dumped out their bags of walnuts and say that they apologize," he said. "There's some people that say that they have permission, and then you have to get the farmer and he has to call the sheriff, which takes a lot of time. But if you let one person take walnuts, then everyone does, and we're trying to harvest the crop. People are not just getting a few, but garbage bags full of walnuts, so we're asking the public and our neighbors to stay vigilant."

Walnut thefts have been an ongoing issue for farmers. Because of that, several counties have adopted nut ordinances to deter theft.

Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner/Sealer Tom Tucker said Tulare was the first county to enact a nut ordinance, in 2012, which stipulated that roadside stands must have a valid business permit, must demonstrate proof of ownership via written permission from the grower, and can operate only after harvest of Chandler-variety walnuts had ended. The ordinance also states that upon probable cause to believe that any agricultural commodity is in the unlawful possession of any person, the agricultural commissioner or any peace officer may inspect the commodity and request proof of ownership.

"Here in Tulare County, walnut thefts have not been a big issue as of late, but there are always some small thefts," said Tucker, who added that his office will soon set this year's end date of the commercial Chandler harvest, which will signal the start of the local walnut-buying period spelled out in the ordinance. "All in all, thefts are way down and we credit the nut ordinance and the hard work of the sheriff's office and our own staff, working with growers and buyers, in its success."

Nut theft ordinances have been adopted in other nut-growing counties such as Butte, Glenn, Kings, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Tulare and Yuba. The buying period for local sales, such as at roadside stands, typically begins in early November but varies by county.

The 2020 walnut crop is expected to be a record-breaking 780,000 tons, up 19% from the previous year's production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report shows an average 2019 walnut price of $1.97 per ton, but farmers fear that this year's price may drop to what is considered to be at or below a break-even level.

"The walnut price is not good," Amarel said. "Farmers will be lucky if they break even this season, so the walnuts stolen by those stopping on the side of the road could end up being pretty significant."

Taylor Roschen, a policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said beyond the financial loss to farmers, stealing agricultural products can be counter to consumer health and well-being.

"California growers go to extremes to ensure the products they harvest are safe and healthy, free from any harmful pathogens that could endanger their consumers," Roschen said. "Stepping into an orchard and taking nuts can compromise the whole harvest."

The California Walnut Commission encourages farmers to follow its harvest best practices, which recommend getting the walnuts off the orchard floor and transported to a huller/dehydrator as soon as possible, to prevent any quality problems or potential theft.

In addition, Greathouse said, farmers have orchards marked with No Trespassing signs warning people to stay out of the orchards for their own safety, but also to ensure walnut quality.

"Marked or not marked, you can't go on the farmers' property without permission and really, it's more about the liability and the safety of the public. People don't know if there's a crew out there harvesting or anything that might be going on," he said.

Yuba County Sheriff's Deputy Jeremy Baumgardner encourages farmers to post No Trespassing signs, use security cameras, hire security companies, use social media with neighbors to patrol the area and, most of all, "report, report, report."

"Farmers need to report the crimes that are occurring," Baumgardner said. "A lot of guys don't take the time to contact local authorities and report what was stolen. Yuba County has an online reporting system, so if you don't have suspects, you access the county's website and report that crime. If a part of our county is getting targeted by thieves, if you don't report it, we can't push resources to that area to help with that issue."

The Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau, along with other county Farm Bureaus, sells No Trespassing signs and offers SmartWater liquid for marking equipment to deter theft and aid in recovery.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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