The combination of value and orchard accessibility has long made walnuts a target for thievery.
In Tulare County, one of California’s largest walnut production areas, growers and law enforcement first worked together in 2009 on an ordinance designed to prevent theft from orchards by placing restrictions on roadside sales.
Earlier this year, another coordinated effort was made to tighten up the original ordinance.
“We needed to make it more difficult to receive payment for stolen walnuts. They were finding ways to get around the rules in place,” said Visalia area walnut grower Gary Hester, who with his wife Anne, were instrumental in forging the first walnut theft ordinance.
Walnut thefts from orchards became a large issue for growers about 8-10 years ago, Hester said. As harvest time neared, ‘cash for walnut’ signs proliferated around the county.
No questions were asked of those bringing in sacks of walnuts for sale. Cash was paid on the spot. Even prior to harvest as nuts were dropping, Hester said the thefts started. Once swept into windrows, the theft rate accelerated.
“For us who cared for the crop it was so in your face to take a financial hit like that,” Hester said. “It was just blatant theft.”
The Hesters, other walnut growers, Farm Bureau, the county Agriculture Commissioner, and the agricultural crime task force worked together to make it harder to receive quick cash payments for walnuts. The ordinance also specified a time when walnut buying could commence.
Tulare County Farm Bureau director Tricia Stever Blattler said most of the other walnut-producing counties in the state have since adopted similar ordinances to stem walnut theft.
Tulare County Agriculture Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita said county staff actively enforces nut theft ordinances by conducting compliance checks of walnut buyers. In addition to requiring identification, including the thumbprint of the seller and their vehicle license plate number, the buyer must keep records of all sales and can only pay by check.
There is a 10-day waiting period before checks for walnuts can be cashed. These efforts discourage people looking for quick cash to buy drugs, Hester said, while allowing legitimate sales.
This year, additional amendments to the walnut theft ordinances were adopted by county supervisors. Buyers must be licensed, and fines for violation of the ordinance can be imposed.
Proof of ownership certificates issued by the county Agriculture Commissioner is the only acceptable evidence of ownership for walnut sellers. No roadside sales can occur prior to start of the Walnut Cash Buying Period announced by the county.
Hester said in previous years that thefts began as soon as walnuts began dropping from the trees.
“When prices were in the $1.80 a pound range, the cash guys were paying 80-90 cents a pound. There would be lines of people waiting with sacks of walnuts to be paid,” Hester said.
He added that walnut growers also have serious concerns about food safety issues with stolen walnuts. Nuts stolen from an orchard and sold through various channels without traceability or a concern for food safety could damage the entire industry if illness resulted from eating contaminated walnuts, he said.
Carl Eidsath, technical support director for the California Walnut Board, said since 2013 most California counties with walnut production have adopted ordinances to prevent cash roadside sales until after harvest is complete. He noted that a theft prevention guideline is on the CWB website.
Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said reported thefts of walnuts from orchards have slowed considerably over the last year. The monitoring of cash buyers, restrictions on payments, and even the use of planes for surveillance of orchards during harvest has made a positive impact.