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— Over 90 percent of the avocados grown in the United States are grown in California, and half of those are grown in San Diego County. The cultivation of avocados, particularly the durable and tasty Haas variety, is a $150-million-per-year business in the county. By some estimates, that figure would be 15 to 20 percent higher were it not for avocado theft.

"I manage 200 acres," says avocado farmer Noel Stehly, as he steers a dilapidated pickup through his Valley Center grove, "and in the last couple of years we've gotten theft down to about $5000 a year. In that time the price we get for the fruit has averaged between $.90 and $1.10 a pound. So it could be 10,000 pounds a year we have been losing. That's just me. Industry-wide, it's a pretty big thing."

Stehly pulls over to let a newer pickup truck full of gardening equipment speed by. "That guy," he explains, "takes care of the landscape of that house up on top of this hill. He drives through my groves all the way up there. I've already talked to him; he seems pretty nice. But the last landscapers, I told the owner, 'I don't want them on the property anymore. Every time they drive down the hill they pick a few fruit.' He said, 'Well, what's a few fruit?' I said, 'That fruit is my livelihood.' "

But it's not passersby snagging a few avocados to make guacamole who are causing the 15 to 20 percent crop losses for avocado ranchers. "I generalize the categories of thieves," says Charlie Wolk, who owns and manages avocado groves all over the North County. "You've got the casual thief, probably stealing for drug or booze money. Then you got a thief who is a regular thief, but he's a small-time operator, maybe steals small amounts from different groves and sells them at either the swap meet or to mom-and-pop restaurants. Then you've got the big-time operators coming in in teams. Actually, what they'll often do is they'll hire laborers off the street corner and put them in the grove so they're only at risk when they put them in and when they pick up the fruit. The people who are actually doing the harvesting, if you stop and ask them what they're doing, they honestly tell you that they're harvesting fruit. Because from their perspective, they don't even know they're stealing. That element is moving a lot of fruit."

Deputy district attorney Elisabeth Silva, who runs the agricultural crime project for the district attorney's office, says there is no profile that fits all avocado thieves. "But the most prominent thread is drugs," she explains. "An awfully large percentage of my defendants have been stealing in order to get drug money. But not everyone has. Another common thread has been industry insiders. But neither one holds true every single time."

The methods used by thieves are as varied as their motivations. "Any scenario you create, I've probably had it happen to me," Wolk says. "They do it with sacks, they do it with picking poles. I've had them stealing from the roadside. I've had them cut through fences like a zipper and drive right into the grove. I take care of two ranches up in Rainbow that are pretty close together. I had a problem one time where I had two picking crews, one in each ranch, but one of the bin-lift jeeps was broken. So I told the crew leader, 'After you move your [full bin of] fruit out of the grove, just run up to the other ranch and move the empties into the grove and pull their full bins out.' Well, he did that; he pulled a full bin of fruit out. And in the time it took him to drive from that ranch over to the other one and back, somebody came along and stole half the bin of fruit. [A bin is 800 pounds.] They probably drove up with a pickup truck, reached in there with their hands, threw it into their pickup truck, and drove off."

"When they can drive in with a truck," Stehly says, "that's when they can really take a lot. And it's easy to hide a pickup truck in an avocado grove. There could be one behind that first row of trees right now and I wouldn't be able to see it. But even without a truck, two or three guys can steal a lot of fruit. They've been known to walk a half a mile with a gunny sack or a trash bag slung over their shoulders. Avocados are expensive enough that a guy can pick 60 to 80 pounds and sling it over his shoulder and walk out, and he's got himself a little extra cash. If you've got a guy working for minimum wage, 80 bucks here and 80 bucks there adds up really fast."

Avocado theft, says Silva, is the biggest agricultural crime in San Diego County in terms of loss incurred by the growers. Several factors contribute to that standing, the largest of which is the high price of the green-skinned fruit. "Why would a thief go steal oranges?" asks Wolk. "You can buy them at roadside, ten pounds for a dollar. That's one of the reasons that they steal avocados." Currently, the price farmers get for their fruit is around $1 a pound. The higher the price, the greater the theft problem.

Another large factor in the avocado-theft equation is the long picking season. "Usually we're from November through August," Stehly says, "though sometimes we start picking in October. Past August, I've got fruit that, to me, is a little rancid. Not everybody would know it, but if you cut it open and smell it, it smells different to me. We'll pick large-sized fruit off a tree in October or November, then let the other stuff grow some more, and then go back. So we would go several times through the grove. One tree could be picked many times."

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