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A new shell game: California's nut industry brings crooks out of woodwork

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California's nut industry brought in more than $8 billion last year, and while you may not have noticed, criminals did.

Increasingly brazen thieves are stealing the crop from farmers, field workers and truck drivers, sometimes at gunpoint. 

"We really have seen a lot more brazen thievery in the area in recent years. We've had field workers and employees that have just been accosted in the middle of the day by armed assailants," Tricia Stever Blattler, with the Tulare County Farm Bureau, said.

Farmers like Barrett Blain say some growers have had their lives threatened.

"My best friend had a shotgun pulled on him while he went to confront some people," Blain said.

Others risk losing their livelihoods.

We've had field workers and employees that have just been accosted in the middle of the day by armed assailants."

- Tricia Stever Blattler, Tulare County Farm Bureau

"It's generally the small family farmer who is hit the hardest," Blain said.

"That may be their entire crop. A couple nights of theft could actually wipe them out entirely," Blattler said.

The thieves aren't just taking a handful of nuts here and there. Last year, in the Central Valley, thieves drove off with more than $500,000 in almonds, walnuts and pistachios.

Carl Eidsath, of the Folsom-based California Walnut Board, told The Packer.com the heist was sophisticated, with thieves hacking into brokers’ computers to steal IDs and other information that made them look like legitimate truckers.

“Now that tree nuts are so valuable, people have become more sophisticated,” Eidsath said. “It’s almost like the Mafia.”

At roughly $7 a pound, a truckload containing the typical 21 tons would be worth approximately $300,000, he noted.

"They may have a flatbed trailer waiting down the road and may actually steal that tractor out from under that employee, load it up down the road and disappear into the night," Blattler said. "Unfortunately, we really are in a situation where I think the bad economy, coupled with high unemployment, coupled with the fact that farms are not easy to secure. You just can't put up a 10-foot chain link fence around every acre of groves and try to keep people out."

That's why a newly formed task force is increasing awareness, posting warning signs and asking farmers and sellers to report anything suspicious.

"Our job is to advise local farmers how to .. what we call .. harden the target -- to prevent thefts from happening in the first place. And that means checking credentials, make sure you don't leave the keys in your vehicles," Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said. "Farmers, who tend to be pretty trusting people, will leave keys in their vehicles. So you'll have a big rig with trailers loaded with the nuts and somebody can just walk right in, start the truck and drive off with it. That has happened."

Authorities are asking for farmers to be vigilant. Some have told Fox News that they have installed lights and cameras on their properties. Others say they have started to carry firearms.  

"It's either the desperation of the times or the fact that people don't value life as much as they should, but, yeah, most farmers I know generally have to carry some sort of protection," Blain said.

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