Nut Rustlers Plunder California Orchards

PHOTO: Almonds, walnuts, pistachios and other nuts are being plundered from ranchers by rustlers, emboldened by rising nut prices.

A cat burglar creeps into a woman's room. On the night table beside her bed sits a tiara and a bowl of nuts. He takes the nuts.

A variation of that bizarre scenario is taking place right now in California, where sophisticated criminals -- less interested in knocking over armored cars than orchards -- are plundering the state of tens of thousands of tons of almonds, walnuts and pistachios, authorities said.

Why? Because nuts are valuable as never before, and because nut growers -- unaccustomed to dealing with organized crime -- are ripe for the picking.

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"It's price-driven," said Carl Eidsath, technical support director of the California Walnut Board. "The biggest problem is the hijacking of truckloads of finished nutmeats leaving processors -- 40,000 pounds at a time."

Those same nutmeats sell at Costco and other retailers for up to $8 a pound, he said. The California walnut industry has seen six to eight thefts of that same magnitude in the past 12 months, Eidsath told ABC News. How many loads were hijacked two years ago? None that he can recall.

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These aren't thieves wearing ski masks. They're crooks who know their way around a keyboard. "They hack into the computer systems of brokers who arrange shipping," Eidsath said. "They look like legit truckers when they show up at the plant." The thieves brandish what appear to be correct credentials and paperwork. Then they disappear into broad daylight with the nuts. "They've taken us by storm," Eidsath said.

Nut thefts used to take place at night, out in the field, Eidsath said. What rancher hadn't been able to pick up off the ground during a day's harvest, the thieves would take at night. "These were guys who'd go out with an old pickup truck and some shovels," he said. "They were an irritation to growers -- guys going out at night to scoop up what they could. This is different. That was small fish compared to guys hijacking a 40,000-pound trailer with $200,000 worth of nuts."

Driving nut prices higher are increased domestic demand and an expanding Asian market, experts said. California's Paramount Farms, the world's largest supplier of pistachios and almonds, sells $38 million worth of pistachios to South Korea alone. Walnuts are California's fourth largest agricultural export, according to an industry group. So valuable are nuts to the state that land owners in California's Central Valley are tearing out acre after acre of vineyards in order to plant nut trees. Walnuts, according to the California Walnut Board, have nearly tripled in price in the past five years. The state's almond crop was valued at $5 billion last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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"Right now, everybody wants to be a nut grower because it's kind of like the Gold Rush," almond farmer Kevin Fonde told the Associated Press. "Everybody wants the gold."

To keep nut rustlers from cashing in, almond, walnut and pistachio producers have banded together to form a crime-fighting task force, Eidsath said.

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One of its goals is to promulgate an eight-point checklist members can use to detect fraudsters. It recommends, for example, that processors not only check to see that truck drivers have authentic paperwork, but that their drivers licenses register as real under UV light.

"It's not rocket science," Eidsath said. "But sophistication is being forced upon the tree nut industry."

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