California crime ring goes nuts: targets almonds, cashews

The past decade continues to see an increasing level of sophistication in agricultural crime, and the newest thieves are targeting the highly valued California nut industry.

Scott Smith/AP
Todd Crosswell, general manager of Caro Nut Co., holds a packaged jar of almonds at the company's nut processing plant in Fresno, Calif. Sophisticated thieves last year stole six truckloads from Caro Nut last year at a loss of $1.2 million to the firm. The scheme has cost the California nut industry nearly $7.6 million dollars in the past four years.

The world is going nuts for almonds and pistachios, but their production is under threat from unstable weather, a scorching drought, and organized crime.

California's agriculturists are beefing up security to strike at increasingly sophisticated efforts to divert their high-end nuts to the black market. Criminals find farm records so they can impersonate reputable shipping companies. A thief posing as a driver can take a truck-load of freshly processed nuts or pistachios, with a value as high as $500,000, and divert the entire shipment to the black market at a massive profit.

"It's made my life miserable," Todd Crosswell, general manager of Caro Nut Co., told the Associated Press. His company lost six shipments of cashews last year to the schemes at a cost of $1.2 million.

The problem itself is far from new. American farms have long had a reputation agricultural theft, known as "plaid-collar crime." Many farm workers may not pay attention to all the paperwork, and large swaths of farmland are difficult to patrol. In the early 2000s, however, farmers began to see a shift from quick thefts of copper wire or unauthorized timbering to far more sophisticated – and costly operations, The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson reported in 2006. 

"Somebody who is stealing copper wire to make a quick buck for a quick fix is very different from somebody who is masterminding a plot to steal hundreds of thousands of pounds of nuts across county lines," said Danielle Rau of the shift , a rural-crime prevention specialist at the California Farm Bureau in Sacramento, told the Monitor then.

Today, these "fictitious pickups" make up 5 percent of the nation's cargo thefts, but the ploy seems to have increased in recent years, Capital Press reported. This type of organized crime has cost California's nut sector, which was valued at roughly $9.3 billion in 2014, almost $7.6 million dollars during the past four years.

The crime wave is hitting an already-suffering industry. Agriculture uses as much as 90 percent of the nation's water, and California has slashed its water use during a record drought, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Farmers are trying new crops that use less water, but almonds are particularly thirsty, and California supplies 80 percent of the world's growing demand.

Farmers have always needed flexibility in dealing with the whims of weather, and they may need that continuous approach to problem-solving in dealing with this new slate of challenges.

"The context is that what we produce in California has been changing for 200 years," Daniel Sumner, an economist at the University of California, Davis, told NPR. "You go back 140 years ago, California was the second-biggest wheat state in the country. The Central Valley was dry land, wheat farming. We were second to Kansas."

Individual companies are improving safeguards for theft and increasing security at pickup points, and plans have surfaced in the legislature to create a task force specializing in cargo theft. For instance, California's Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux has tripled the size of his agriculture crimes unit.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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