Thieves go crazy for nut and crop thefts

As a private investigator here in Oregon, I get inquiries from all kinds of people asking me to investigate all kinds of “stuff.” I once had a client who was convinced that the illuminati was responsible for the murder of his girlfriend. The police had already investigated the case and several people confessed and were convicted. But this client told me an elaborate and bizarre story and he wanted me to dig into the inner workings of the illuminati and find the real killers.

I also had a client who was convinced that a former business associate was running a large multi-state human sex trafficking ring. More than anything, this client had an ax to sharpen and wanted to “get the evidence” against his former business partner and turn it over to the police as a way of getting back at him.

Then there was the woman who felt like she was being attacked by poison gas. And there was the case of a lady who was so paranoid that she would only talk to me by peeking out from under a blanket that she had over her head and face at all times when we talked. She also had a prospective client who was convinced that her local police department was involved in widespread electronic surveillance of numerous citizens.

For the record: I accepted the illuminatisex trafficking, poison gas and pico-a-boo case, but referred the man with electronic eavesdropping concerns to someone who had more experience with electronic surveillance countermeasures.

With all the “unusual” research requests I get, I’m rarely surprised. But when a local farmer called me and told me that he had been the victim of crop theft, he intrigued me. Crop theft? He had never thought about it before, tell me more.

Oregon has an ideal climate for growing high-quality hazelnuts and accounts for over 90% of the hazelnuts grown in the US (locals here call them Filberts). Hazelnuts are growing on over 30,000 acres here in Oregon and the value of the annual crop is around 90 MILLION dollars. My client was a hazelnut farmer who went to check his field to see if he was ready to harvest and discovered that unknown persons had already harvested all the hazelnuts on this 18 acre parcel!

Years ago, when I was a police officer, I once arrested a man for stealing some plastic trash bags of grass clippings (yes, the stuff that comes out of your lawnmower as you mow the grass!),* so he knew thieves would steal almost everything. But I had never heard of someone going to the effort of harvesting and stealing a farmer’s crop.

Part of the investigation for this case was to educate me on how hazelnuts are harvested, the equipment needed to harvest a crop, how the nuts are processed, and how they are typically sold. Along the way, I learned that crop theft, especially the theft of nuts like walnuts, almonds, and pistachios, is a growing (and very expensive) problem. Have you been to the store lately and seen how much a small package of nuts costs?

Crop theft is BIG theft!

Growers are typically not insured against loss and a trailer load of nuts or a crop harvested on the sly can be worth anywhere from $150,000 to over $500,000. This is a BIG steal!

In 2015 a grsteal almonds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews and, in my case, hazelnuts.

Crop theft takes many forms. In the US and Canada, grain theft is gaining momentum and there have been reports of pumpkin patches being cleared overnight and berry fields being hand-picked in California reported theft of pistachios by a value of $400,000. In this case, the thieves didn’t even bother to put in the work necessary to reap the crop. They posed as a legitimate trucking company and showed up at a processing plant to pick up “their” load. Thieves don’t discriminate. They will be thieves. It is unlikely that the thieves are doing the manual labor of harvesting these crops themselves; thieves don’t like hard work. Instead, they hire unsuspecting farmworkers who believe they are working for the grower or a labor contractor.

In states like Oregon, where marijuana cultivation is legal, marijuana growers are always concerned about crop theft and sabotage. The concern is so great that it has spawned a whole new security industry.


As in all security situations, there is no single “magic bullet” that will completely solve the problem. Rather, it is a series of security steps that, when taken together, can have an impact on the problem. Effective prevention of crop theft begins with increased awareness and vigilance, protective security measures, supply chain controls, and robust investigations after the fact.

Awareness and vigilance

Rural fields are “easy targets” for crop thieves. In recent years, most crop growers did not think about crop theft. In some areas that haven’t been hit hard by crop robbers, that’s still the case. Many growers have the attitude that crop theft is something that happens somewhere else and to someone else, not to them. The goal of safety awareness is to encourage growers and farmworkers to think about safety in virtually every decision they make. Only when security becomes second nature will it be truly effective.

To increase awareness and develop strategies to combat nut theft, California growers held a Emergency Summit on Nut Theft to bring together growers, processors, trucking companies, insurers and law enforcement.

protective security measures

Most farm fields are not fully fenced and often the roads leading to the fields are not even fenced. Enclosing an entire field may not be practical or economically feasible, but main roads in and out should be closed off with strong metal gates. Whenever feasible, cost-effective technology should be used. Doors can be fitted with relatively inexpensive sensors that can alert a grower via smartphone when a door is forced open or opened during an unusual time of day or night.

Surveillance cameras can serve as a deterrent, but keep in mind that surveillance cameras alone usually have minimal deterrent value. Despite the limited deterrent value of security surveillance cameras, they are invaluable in an investigation if a theft occurs.

Supply Chain Controls

In an effort to deter shippers posing as legitimate trucking companies, some California nut processors are now taking a closer look at shipping paperwork and fingerprinting drivers hauling loads. Some counties are also passing ordinances that require anyone buying or selling nuts in bulk to have a certificate of proof of ownership indicating where and when they were obtained.

To combat grain thefts, a number of “confetti” products have been developed that can be mixed with grain and provide positive ownership information. A product called crop it consists of small squares of newsprint with code numbers that are mixed in grain. According to the company, “these coded flakes serve as a theft deterrent and marking agent for positive identification, protecting grain from theft.”


Catching and prosecuting crop thieves has a real effect. Some California sheriff’s departments have Agricultural Crime Units with investigators dedicated to investigating agricultural theft. And in some cases, growers turn to private investigators like me who have backgrounds in investigations and physical security. Private investigators who can combine their investigative skills with physical security expertise can investigate theft and can also assess security issues and make practical, cost-effective security recommendations.

*In the case of the stolen grass clippings, I was working as a patrol officer for the Portland, Oregon police when I saw someone stop at an unattended Goodwill donation site. The person left behind three large garbage bags that I assumed contained clothing. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, just someone making a charitable donation. Just a few minutes later, a man in a truck pulled up to the donation location and began rummaging through the items. He ended up taking the three plastic garbage bags without looking to see what was inside.

As he walked away from the scene I stopped him. He admitted to taking the bags from the donation site. When I opened the bags to see what he had just stolen, I was shocked to see that the first person I thought was just a nice guy making a charitable donation actually “donated” the grass clippings from him. And then this thief shows up and steals the grass clippings that the first guy dumped at the donation site! Like I said, thieves will steal almost anything.

As a side note, I arrested the grass clipping thief. After all, theft is theft. He pleaded not guilty and opted for a bench trial. At trial, the defendant’s attorney argued that the grass clippings were trash and had no value, so no theft of value legally occurred. I suppose his point was that you can’t be convicted of theft when the stolen item is worthless. A kind of novel defense. The judge thought about this for a moment and rejected this argument. The judge told the defendant that since he stole the two bags, the bags had value to him. It was just his bad luck that he ended up stealing someone else’s trash.

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