By Scott Smith
ESCALON, Calif. -- The soaring value of California's nut crops is attracting a new breed of thieves who have been making off with the pricey commodities by the truckload, recalling images of cattle rustlers of bygone days.
This harvest season in the Central Valley, thieves cut through a fence and hauled off $400,000 in walnuts. An additional $100,000 in almonds was stolen by a driver with a fake license. And $100,000 in pistachios was taken by a big rig driver who left a farm without filling out any paperwork.
Investigators suspect low-level organized crime may have a hand in the cases, while some pilfered nuts are ending up in Los Angeles for resale at farmers markets or disappear into the black market.
Domestic demand for specialty foods and an expanding Asian market for nuts have prompted a nut orchard boom in the state's agricultural heartland. Such heists have become so common that an industry task force recently formed to devise ways to thwart thieves.
"The Wild West is alive and well in certain aspects," said Danielle Oliver of the California Farm Bureau. "There's always someone out there trying to make a quick dollar on somebody else's hard work."
Amid the nut boom, farmers have torn out vineyards and other crops to plant nut trees to keep up with demand. Real estate firms, retirement funds and insurance companies have taken note by adding almond, walnut and pistachio farmland to diversify their portfolios.
As the nation's top nut producer, California grows more almonds and pistachios than any other country. Only China produces more walnuts, which have nearly tripled in price in the last five years to about $2 a pound, according to the California Walnut Board.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that through 2012 the state's almond crop was valued at $5 billion per year, pistachios were over $1 billion and walnuts were over $1.5 billion.
"Right now, everybody wants to be a nut grower because it's kind of like the gold rush of the 1850s," said Ripon almond farmer Kevin Fondse of Fondse Brothers. "Everybody wants the gold."
That frenzy has spawned crime. In a brazen heist in October, thieves made off with 140,000 pounds of processed walnuts from GoldRiver Orchards. The thief cut through wooden fence posts in the dead of night, hooked up a truck to three gondola trailers brimming with nuts and drove off.
In another incident, unemployed trucker Francisco Javier Lopez Martinez told investigators he couldn't pass up a job paying $180, despite his suspicions. He was hired in October by a man who gave him a fraudulent driver's license and told him to pick up 43,000 pounds of almonds at Sunnygem, a processing plant.