Thieves target avocado trees, devastating loss for local farmers

 

They’re known as green gold. California avocados are a prized commodity and every year, thousands of pounds are stolen out of their trees, before harvest – leaving farmers in the red.

 

On Mike Hillebrecht’s family farm, the crops are so rich and full, the tree branches nearly touch the road. Every corner of his property is lined with oranges and avocados.  “It’s been a good life for us,” he said.

 

Hillebrecht is a third generation farmer on this same land. He is one of three thousand avocado growers in San Diego County.  His avocado trees span 17 acres.

 

“For us, the rain is like dollars from heaven.” The high price of water is one reason many farmers have quit. It’s simply too tough to make a profit. And, cheap imports from Mexico make it tough to compete, but the most frustrating problem they face is theft.

 

“It happened late fall, the fruit wasn’t even close to being ripe, and 3,000 pounds were stolen.”

 

It was a few years back when Mike awoke to thieves ransacking his trees. $3,000 worth of avocados were pulled from their branches under the cover of darkness. Two of the men were caught and charged with felonies.

 

“Dad always joked; I’d like to hire those guys because they were faster pickers in the dark than most crews during the day.”

 

It is getting riskier and thanks to better fencing and video surveillance, more thieves are being caught.  The sheriff’s department steps us patrols around harvest time, too – but many groves are still unguarded.

 

“We’ve heard other people have had their place chain link fenced, and thieves come in with cordless drills and cut right through and drive in, help themselves and drive out,” Hillebrecht said.

 

“San Diego County is the largest producer of avocados in the state, and because the fruit is valuable, it can become the target of theft,” Eric Larson said. Larson is the Executive Director at the San Diego County Farm Bureau. On an average year, 20,000 avocados are stolen from San Diego growers. The most he’s seen in a year – 80,000.

 

“A lot are small growers, not corporate, small family farms, so these losses can be devastating,” Larson added.

 

There are things to look out for though – “We’ve seen people up the road, selling avocados in the back of their tailgate – 20 in bag for a couple dollars, makes you wonder,” Hillebrecht said.

 

And, be respectful of that low hanging fruit – “We had one lady picking, who thought they were just growing wild here, and for the public to just help themselves to,” he added.

 

Finally, it’s all about supply and demand – the more these thieves take, the more you and I pay at the grocery store.

 

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