Walnuts are big business in Tulare County for farmers, processors and even thieves.
For years, the region has been plagued by thieves who scour the region’s walnut orchards filling burlap sacks with as many nuts as they can haul away. The nuts are quickly sold to roadside buyers who funnel them to flea markets around the state. And as the value of nuts increases, so does the interest by thieves.
In 2013, walnuts in Tulare County were valued at $262 million, up from $185 million the year before.
“Commercial production and handling of walnuts constitute an important industry here in Tulare County,” said Marilyn Kinoshita, Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner. “Unfortunately, some people steal them from orchards and sell the walnuts illegally on the streets.”
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Unlike other nuts that are harvested and immediately removed from the orchard, walnuts often remain in the orchard until workers can gather them up, making them easy prey for thieves.
To help crack down on the flow of illegally harvested nuts, Tulare County created tougher regulations two years ago that requires the name, driver’s license number, address, telephone number and signature of the seller and similar information for the buyer. The date and time of the transaction must also be provided as well as the common or generic name of the nuts.
The county also established a designated walnut-buying period that prevents stands from setting up in the area until the Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner says it’s OK. That buying period began on Friday, Oct. 31.
“County staff has been actively enforcing the nut theft ordinance by conducting compliance checks at places where walnuts are sold to ensure that this practice stops,” Kinoshita said.
County officials said that at its worst, thieves were making off with hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of nuts — and more.
“They can be bold and brave,” said David Case, Tulare County’s deputy agricultural commissioner. “A set of double trailers was taken once.”
Case said the county’s ordinance has proven to be effective in reducing nut theft.
“It hasn’t stopped it altogether but it has made it much more difficult and that has reversed the trend we were seeing,” Case said. “This whole process is about traceability. We want to know where those nuts came from.”
Violation of the ordinance is a misdemeanor, Case said.
The ordinance allows employees, with the grower’s permission, to glean what is left in the field as long as they have a proof of ownership certificate. Those certificates are issued by the county and provided to growers.