Thieves Hit Pay Dirt Stealing Other's Plants

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Crooks are seeing a different kind of green in gardens and on farms, making big money stealing and reselling coveted produce, decorative plants and trees.

These agriculture thieves rob residential yards and hardworking farmer's fields of their bounty. And they aren't just picking a couple of peaches off a neighbor's tree: Crop robbers are can be armed and dangerous.

Just last month, workers at an avocado (search) grove were shot at by thieves who were discovered pillaging the trees in Bonall, Calif., in broad daylight. No one was hurt except the grove owner’s wallet, but the flagrant crime called attention to the growing problem of crop theft.

“The nickname for avocado is green gold,” said Elisabeth Silva, deputy district attorney of San Diego, adding that avocados are particularly vulnerable to thieves.

Jerome Stehly, owner of the Stehly Ranch (search), which has 1,500 acres of avocado trees in Valley Center, Calif., said crop theft has become a consistent problem.

“We usually get hit in some of the groves every year,” he said. “We try to divert them or keep them out by picking the lower fruit on the trees or putting up fences. This year they cut right through the fences though.”

Stehly said one 40-acre plot of his land was robbed of $20,000 to $30,000 dollars worth of avocados this year. "That would pay two months of water bills," he said. "It’s very frustrating. It’s hard to catch them so it’s a constant battle."

The problem is harder to solve than some crimes because it's almost impossible to trace produce back to a particular farm, said Silva, who specializes in prosecuting agricultural crime. And packinghouses or roadside stands often neglect to follow paperwork guidelines devised to track the origins of produce.

“As long as you know where to go, you can turn those avocados to cash pretty easily,” Silva said.

Crooks are typically either members of picking crews or drug dealers looking for quick cash who rob fields or crates awaiting pickup, according to Silva.

“One lady had a bin by the side of the road. She got a strange feeling and went out there and sure enough there was a heroin addict unloading her avocados into his Buick,” she said.

But farmland isn’t the only earth being robbed. Suburbia also gets hit up for green.

In Detroit, Japanese maples (search) are being dug up and stolen right out of people’s yards.

Deborah Totzkay of Pleasant Ridge, Mich., placed a sign in her garden that read, “NEIGHBORS BEWARE. On June 17th, my Japanese maple was stolen. Protect yours!” the Chicago Tribune reported. Her $150 tree was stolen from her yard while she was at work.

In Midtown, Tenn., Scott Williams was shocked one morning when he looked out his window and saw holes in his lawn instead of dogwood (search) trees, The Commercial Appeal reported. He too posted a sign: “Missing: three dogwood trees. White flowers, green leaves."

And Silva said San Diego’s flower and nursery products are major targets too.

“A lot of landscaping plants and palm trees are stolen,” she said. “People don’t know what hit them, then they look up and down the street and see the same thing has happened to their neighbors."

Sago Palms (search), which grow to be about 5 feet tall, are particularly popular with thieves, netting $100 per inch in trunk length, Silva said.

But farmers aren’t giving up the fruits of their labor without a fight. Some have hired private security firms to patrol their land.

The police are waking up and smelling the guacamole too. Many large groves are being given Global Positioning System (search) coordinates to make it easier for local law enforcement to track them. And police helicopters equipped with night vision and heat-seeking technology fly over fields to search for produce perps.

Silva said while agricultural crime may not seem dire to the average person, she hopes people will appreciate its impact.

“I think a lot of people do look at it as kind of funny, like ‘Why are we making a big deal out of avocados?’" she said. "But then you look at the scale of the theft. You are hitting [farmers] directly in the pocketbook and these are the people that are feeding the country.”