Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Region’s growers tired of shelling out after thefts

lester walnuts1W

Russ Lester, owner of Dixon Ridge Farms, stands in one of his walnut orchards outside Winters. Lester produces organic walnuts using sustainable methods. Brad Zweerink/McNaughton Newspapers photo

From page A1 | December 08, 2013 |

Thieves have taken to stealing the region’s walnuts and almonds under the veil of night, but there’s an ordinance in the works that may help to thwart these rural crimes in Yolo County.

The ordinance would provide local police the authority to pull someone over on suspicion of this crime and ask for documentation that confirms the nuts that are being transported were obtained legitimately.

The Yolo County Farm Bureau found the area’s growers were in favor of such an ordinance in a recent survey, and decided to pursue getting it enacted. Most surrounding counties have identical measures in place already.

According to the 2012 Yolo County Agricultural Report, walnuts and almonds rank among the county’s most valuable crops (at the No. 5 and 6 spot, respectively). Combined, the sum total of the crops’ worth is $90.7 million.

But harvest season for these valuable nut crops is a vulnerable time. Growers pick the walnuts or almonds from the trees and leave the nuts unattended overnight before collecting the piled-up rows, referred to as windrows.

It’s possible for criminals to shovel the piles into a truck without detection when the growers and farmhands head home for the day. Winters grower Russ Lester was a victim of this sort of heist a few years ago.

“We went to go collect the harvest from one of our orchards, and some 50 or 60 feet of windrows were missing,” Lester recalled. “Someone had obviously backed a pickup truck in there, and scooped it up off the ground.”

The local grower’s orchard has not been prey for any walnut snatchers since, though he’s aware that the problem hasn’t ceased.

There was a trio of incidents within the past year in which fellow Yolo County growers were targeted, he said. An estimated three tons of walnuts were stolen between this year’s three thefts, which may cost up to $9,000 with current market prices.

The thieves have varying methods of offloading the stolen goods, depending on the quantity and whether the walnuts are processed yet or not. The large-scale thefts can involve fabricated documentation and driver’s licenses.

“They’ve gotten so sophisticated at a handler level that they come in to a shipping dock with what looks like proper paperwork,” Lester said. “The whole truckload of walnuts is then paid for and shipped out.

“We suspect that these large quantities may be going to places like farmers markets, but we’re not quite sure. The smaller quantities that are stolen, more like what we’re seeing locally, may end up in roadside stands.”

Yolo County has yet to experience a large-scale nut theft on par with that of Escalon’s reported 140,000 pounds of stolen walnuts in November. Those vested in local agriculture, like Lester, are hoping never to.

“It’s something that, as prices continue to rise, isn’t going to be any less common,” Lester said. “We need to take action against it now. It will rapidly spread from one county to the next, and there’s a lot of counties that grow nuts in California.”

Lester is part of the Solano County Ag Advisory Committee, which devised an ordinance similar to the one Yolo County is considering. The ordinance was adopted in September, after the Solano Board of Supervisors unanimously approved it.

Yolo County Agricultural Commissioner John Young said the local iteration of the ordinance will be nearly identical to that of Solano’s, with some tightened-up language as to better allow law enforcers to pull over those suspected of traveling with stolen nut crops.

The Yolo County Sheriffs Department will have an essential role in this, Young added, so the county’s Farm Bureau has reached out to the agency for its input on the ordinance as it has been proposed.

Once the Sheriff’s Department has made comment on desired changes to the ordinance, and after those suggestions have been incorporated, it will be put forth for the Board of Supervisors to vote on.

Young hopes to have it enacted in the first half of 2014, ahead of next year’s fall harvest season. In doing so, Yolo County will have followed the footsteps of not just Solano, but also Butte, Tulare and Fresno counties.

“A big piece of this is making sure we’re doing the same thing here as our adjacent counties,” Young said. “That way, we’re forming a region that all has the same ordinances in place.

“If one county doesn’t put in place an ordinance, the theft will get pushed into that county. We want to make sure that we’re not the one ordinance-free county that’s targeted.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at bjohnson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett.



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