Thieves strike in the dark of night, when newly harvested walnuts lie in tidy rows on the orchard floor.
Officials and growers in Stanislaus County, a major producer of the crop, are crafting an ordinance that would crack down on the theft. It would require sellers of small amounts of walnuts to provide documentation, which already is the rule for larger operations.
The goal is to keep stolen walnuts from being sold at roadside stands or to unwitting processors.
“They sack them up and hit the road, and they try to sell them somewhere,” said John Mundt, owner of Alpine Pacific Nut Co., a processor east of Keyes. He has been involved in the discussion of the proposal, as has Milton O’Haire, the county agricultural commissioner.
“They’re worth a nickel or 6 cents apiece and you can scoop up 200 or 300 pounds of them and sell them,” O’Haire said.
A meeting Wednesday evening will provide a chance for interested people to discuss the proposal, which soon could go before the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.
The ordinance would apply to sellers of up to 2,000 pounds of walnuts per year, shells included, which is what 25 to 30 trees can produce, O’Haire said. They would need certificates with their name and address, the source and weight of the nuts, and other information.
O’Haire said the documentation would be more detailed than what the state already requires of anyone selling 25 or more pounds of a farm product. Violators could be fined up to $500 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for a repeat.
The ordinance would apply to sales by gleaners – people who have the grower’s permission to gather nuts that remain in the orchard after the main harvest.
The county’s walnuts drew an average of $1.50 per pound in 2012, according to O’Haire’s office. Mundt said prices this year have topped $2. The industry has boomed in the past few years thanks to a positive health message and a growing middle class around the world.
Other high-value farm products also are subject to theft – such as almonds, cantaloupes and calves – but backers of the ordinance say walnuts are a special case. The August-November harvest involves shaking them from the trees and sweeping them into windrows on the ground to await loading into trucks. That second step leaves them prime for overnight pilfering by thieves with shovels, gunny sacks and pickup trucks, who can load walnuts faster than almonds.
The Stanislaus County Farm Bureau reports on rural crimes in a weekly email. Three times in October, it was about walnut theft.
“Recently, a processor contacted our office and said the seller gave a grower name that said they could glean,” one report said. “A quick call to the grower yielded a very emphatic ‘NO.’ ”
Stanislaus is third among California counties in walnut production, after San Joaquin and Butte. Merced is a relatively small player. About half a dozen counties have specific ordinances against theft of the crop, none of them in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The effort is separate from the steps the industry has taken against large-scale theft of processed walnuts, sometimes by the semi-load. The measures include fencing, cameras and careful checks on who is coming and going at the plants.
The meeting on the proposed ordinance will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in Harvest Hall at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center, 3800 Cornucopia Way, off Crows Landing Road west of Ceres. Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.