Thursday, November 09, 2006

"'Nut-nappers' have gotten brazen"

haha... I just couldn't resist.

**

Nut-nappers' have gotten brazen
From the Associated Press
7:46 PM PST, November 7, 2006

FRESNO — At first, Larry Ladd just let it go. But when the farmer caught six thieves plundering his walnut orchard in less than a day, he knew he had a problem.

"At first, I'd just ask the deputy to impress upon them that this is the wrong thing to do," said Ladd, who figures he's collared about 25 would-be crooks, including families with children, hauling hundreds of pounds of walnuts off his farm. "But then it got ridiculous."

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As prices for almonds and walnuts rise with demand, a growing black market has emboldened nut nappers to cut holes in fences, sneak into distribution centers and drive off with truckloads of nuts. California farmers have reason to be vigilant: Growers here produce about 80% of the world's almonds and 99% of the walnuts grown domestically.

Ladd, who farms 24 acres on the outskirts of Modesto, said he expects to get about $1 a pound for nuts this year. California walnuts earned nearly $4.4 million in 2004, according to the latest figures available from the California Farm Bureau Federation.

But savvy scoundrels are also eyeing a more valuable nut: the almond.

Last month, a Fresno County task force that tackles rural crimes recovered 44,000 pounds of processed almonds taken from a distribution center. The recovery was a rare break in a series of thefts that have cost California farmers at least $1.5 million in stolen almonds this year, according to the Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network.

There are typically one or two almond thefts every fall, but in the last 18 months there have been at least a dozen reports of larger looting, said Marsha Venable, spokeswoman for the Almond Board of California, a marketing group.

"Almonds have become such a huge crop. It's attracting anyone," she said.

Acreage devoted to almonds has increased 13% over the last five years as growers have abandoned other crops. Almonds were a $2.2-billion commodity in California in 2004, the farm bureau said.

This year, growers expect to harvest a little more than 1 million pounds of almonds, a figure that's expected to rise to 1.5 million pounds over the next four years. Almonds sell for about $3 a pound wholesale and for twice that in stores.

The nuts are so valuable — the stolen load was worth $135,000 wholesale — that thieves who drive away whole truckloads have been known to abandon the vehicles and keep just the almonds.

Farmers, processors and trucking centers have added cameras and security guards, though monitoring their grounds can be difficult and expensive.

"My farm's right on a busy road. I can't install motion detectors, and I can't afford to pay someone to watch the grounds around the clock," Ladd said.

The recent nut heists appear to be well organized and sophisticated. The criminals use computers to track shipments and seem to be aware that fall is the time when demand and prices are high and supply is still low before the remaining harvest, said Deputy Royjindar Singh, a spokesman for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.

"It has to be someone who knows the market well and has a buyer lined up," he said.

About 70% of the almonds grown in California go to other countries, and that's where rural crime investigators think thieves are selling them. Paperwork and a well-linked industry in the U.S. would make domestic sales of big loads of stolen almonds difficult, Singh said.

Farmers have kept each other abreast of the thefts by sending out e-mails and faxes about each case.

"Even though we're competitors, we talk," said Jeannine Campos, a spokeswoman for Campos Brothers Farm, a family-owned company that has grown almonds in Fresno County since 1981.

After the raid on Ladd's walnut farm, authorities arrested six people on suspicion of petty and grand theft, though no arrests have been made in the large almond thefts.

"You can figure that whatever harvest season we're in, we're dealing with thefts of that crop," said Fresno County Assistant Sheriff Jeff Hollis. "But this isn't taking a few peaches off the tree anymore. They've gotten big and brazen."

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