Farmers, law enforcement officers and county agricultural commissioners say they have taken a big bite out of crime in California’s eight leading walnut-producing counties.
As the price of walnuts increased in recent years to more than $2 a pound at the farm gate, the temptation to steal the nuts also increased. But with the enactment of walnut-theft ordinances in Tulare, Kings, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Sutter, Tehama, Glenn and Butte counties, the resale of stolen walnuts has become much more difficult.
“We were the first county to adopt the walnut theft ordinance, so I got inquiries from several other ag commissioners,” Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita said. “It has been in place for three years now and I think the thefts have decreased at least by half, although there are still a few individuals who are working the system.”
The ordinance requires that a person in possession of walnuts for sale—such as at a roadside stand—must have a proof-of-ownership certificate from the farmer who grew the nuts.
Walnuts are more vulnerable to theft directly from orchards because they are the only major nut crop in California that is not picked up immediately after they are shaken from the trees. Instead, walnuts are put up in windrows to be gathered later—sometimes days later.
But that practice is slowly changing, as more growers pick up the walnuts the same day rather than leaving them overnight. That is one of the best management practices recommended by the California Walnut Commission on its website, www.walnuts.org/walnut-industry/growers.
“These practices include things like being able to recognize fraudulent credentials and fake licenses, (having) fences with locked gates and use of brokers and carriers that have at least three loads’ proven history,” said Carl Eidsath, technical support director for the Walnut Commission. “We wanted to provide growers and handlers with a checklist of best practices that they could incorporate into their operations so they don’t become victimized.”
Kinoshita said she is also encouraged by the active role that everyone in the walnut business has been taking to curb thefts.
“More growers are taking measures to decrease the thefts by hiring security firms with 24-hour patrols. This is expensive, but the growers have been sharing the cost with neighbors,” Kinoshita said.
For years, the theft of walnuts in small quantities had been tolerated by farmers, but with the current value of the nuts, walnut theft is no longer considered a petty crime.
“People do stop by the side of the road and pick up a few nuts. We are always going to have that, but with nut prices so high now, it could attract more thievery,” said Joe Martinez, who grows walnuts in Yolo and Solano counties.
Eidsath emphasized that because walnuts are so expensive now, even a small amount of walnuts adds up to a lot of money.
“As the price of walnuts went above $2 a pound, people realized they could make some real money with a pickup load of walnuts. So that really drove the crime up,” he said. “The thieves would sell the walnuts to roadside stands, and the roadside stands would resell them to consumers. But now, the proof-of-ownership ordinance makes it more difficult, because the operator of the roadside stand has to have proof of ownership from the grower to be able to sell the walnuts.”
Thefts have also occurred in Sutter County, where grower Mat Conant of Rio Oso said he is hopeful that a county walnut-theft ordinance will curb some of those crimes.
“In our area there have been some thefts, but mostly it is people who come out at night and take a few nuts,” he said. “What’s bad is when the buyers of these nuts actually provide the burlap bags to the thieves, knowing that they will fill them up and bring them back. That’s a pretty blatant thing. So we now have the walnut-theft ordinance in the county, and that will really help.”
When the Tulare County ordinance was adopted, two of the people instrumental in its creation were Gary and Anne Hester, who grow walnuts in Farmersville, near Visalia.
“My wife Anne put together a committee comprised of a lot of different people—the ag commissioner, the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office, growers and security firms,” Hester said. “This was a case of farmers seeing a problem, organizing a committee and getting it done. This is now the third year for Tulare County. During the first year, a lot of thieves would just take the nuts to another county. But now that other walnut-producing counties have adopted similar ordinances, it has made a tremendous difference.”
This year’s walnut crop had been forecast at 545,000 tons, but final numbers will not be available until after the harvest is completed. Most growers and handlers now say the crop will likely not reach the earlier projection. Last year, the crop totaled 495,000 tons, with a farmgate value of $1.8 billion. There are 325,000 acres of walnuts in the state, including 45,000 acres of younger, non-bearing trees.
“California produces more than 99 percent of the commercially grown walnuts in the United States, and we are No. 2 in the world. China is No. 1 in production, we think, but we can never be sure of the numbers that come out of China,” Eidsath said.