By Craig W. Anderson
During walnut harvest, people often go into area orchards to take walnuts while they’re on the ground. Walnut farmers have endured a low price harvest and don’t appreciate passers-by stealing their crop from the orchard floor. Prices for walnuts may be low, but growers prefer that over nothing at all if they’re stolen.
“People seem to think that when walnuts or almonds are on the ground awaiting sweeping the nuts they’re fair game. As the nuts disappear from the orchard floor the grower’s profits go with them,” explained Detective Don Stuhmer of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, Rural Crime Task Force/AGNET. “Ag crime is ever evolving. A thief goes to jail and trades information with fellow inmates and also learns what’s going on from his or her attorney.”
While nut theft has been rampant in Yuba, Sutter and Sacramento counties, San Joaquin County, while experiencing its share of walnut and general ag theft, seems to be faring better than surrounding counties.
“I personally haven’t experienced any additional crime,” said SJFB President David Strecker. “I haven’t heard much about any walnut harvest thefts being more numerous or bold. It seems to be ‘normal,’ just the same old crimes.”
San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner Tim Pelican echoed Strecker to a degree, noting, “I haven’t heard of extra crime occurring. Also, there haven’t been a lot of people contacting the office asking to acquire proof of ownership which means they’ll have permission from a particular grower to glean from the orchards or fields.”
Pelican pointed out that if a person selling harvested walnuts isn’t asked to produce the proof of ownership there is no way to determine if the goods are legal or not.
“If the buyer doesn’t ask, the violation’s not recorded and the crook gets away with the illegal sale of illegally gotten goods,” Stuhmer said.
Theft and deterrents
A variety of thievery, however, does plague the agricultural community at harvest time and Stuhmer said crime is “a mix right now. Trailer theft, ATV’s are down slightly; ag theft of tools, chainsaws and the like are up; actual break-ins of barns and other outbuildings are down slightly.”
“AGNET began with 20 officers and now we have 12,” Stuhmer said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have and we’re looking to hire and retain more deputies in the future.”
“The sheriff’s office was asking for more deputies before the pandemic hit,” said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. “We need to see an increased law enforcement presence.”
Stuhmer said recovery of stolen items is down from 2019’s $176,300 recovered and six ag-related arrests to $53,200 recovered with five ag-related arrests as of mid-December.
Recovery of stolen goods depends on property owners reporting the thefts and non-reporting has become an issue, Stuhmer said. “If it’s not reported it becomes very difficult to recover; if equipment has not been serialized [a serial number chiseled into the metal of the equipment in a hidden area] recovery’s a challenge. Now, we’re using a Smart Water product developed in the UK which, when applied, will glow yellow when a special light is shone on it. Smart Water’s use has been very successful in Florida.”
This Smart Water is, he said, like super glue, transparent and applicable to marking almost anything. “All vials of the stuff are registered and in a data base so when equipment or other stolen items are recovered we can check the database to determine ownership and return it to the owner.”
The water can be applied with a mister, is designed to supplement the Owner Applied Number [OAN] program and he said the sheriff’s office will be partnering with Farm Bureau to supply Smart Water kits to farmers for application to their equipment.
About the OAN, Stuhmer said, “There isn’t nearly as much stamping as was done in the past. Perhaps people have become complacent about OANs.”
“This time of year people must really watch out because it’s the time for property theft,” said Jim Ferrari, Linden diversified farmer and SJFB past president.
According to Stuhmer there is little real difference between 2019 and 2020 crimes, including animal theft, ag building break-ins, arson-agriculture, theft-ATV/UTV/Trailer, theft-copper wire, theft-agriculture, ag related stolen car recoveries and all illegal dumping.
Recovery in 2020 of walnuts wasn’t “nearly as much as last year but the nut ordinances have paid off tenfold in deterring walnut theft.”
The California Walnut Commission told growers to follow best harvest practices such as getting the walnuts off the orchard floor and to a huller/dehydrator as soon as possible to prevent quality problems and theft.
Stolen item variety
Copper wire prices have increased significantly to $2.90 per pound which means thieves are on the lookout for it and other metals having also increased in value.
“It seems that the usual crimes are ongoing but I’ve not heard of any upsurge of note,” said SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel.
Stuhmer said there have been three to four times as many telephone line thefts in rural areas. “They’ll climb a walnut tree, cut the line at the pole and then cut it at the other end and haul it off. I’d estimate that AT&T has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of lines in rural areas.”
Walnut burl theft was all the rage in the ’80s but, Stuhmer said, “A lot of buyers have fallen by the wayside, but some legit buyers are still in business.” There is one buyer in Modesto, he said, who doesn’t care where the burls he buys come from and he’s under scrutiny.
“The criminal element will, after release from jail, post stolen goods on the internet and buyers come to the site where the goods are. It’s buyer beware.”
He said the meth labs of old are mostly done. “Today it’s shipped into the country in solution and then cooked up.” The border tightening up has lowered the amount of drugs coming in but heroin and meth are making a comeback.
Ag’s size influences crime
With an ag crop value of more than $2.7 billion from San Joaquin County, Stuhmer said the “crime is proportionate to the size of agriculture; large counties have large ag crime activity.”
And the most prevalent ag theft crimes in San Joaquin County as of mid-December 2020 are: ATV theft; tractors and forklifts; commodities including almonds, walnuts, sheep, fuel and hay; tool theft and the damages associated with it; vandalism; illegal marijuana grows that pollute water sources, fields and orchards; multiple robberies and thefts involving hemp growers; homeless issues; and animal activist vandalism.