Baxter Black, DVM
Catching avocado rustlers is sort of a cross between the Covid virus, wildfires, exchange students bearing addictive goodies and coon hunting.
“All right, come down outta that tree and drop that avocado. Frisk him, Ken and don’t forget to check for lemons.”
In the southern California county of Ventura you will find the occasionally fractious co-mingling of densely populated residential areas and intensive orchard and truck farming. I’m sure there was a time when farmers gladly supplied their neighbors with enough lemons, strawberries and avocados to keep ‘em in guacomole and shortcake each growing season.
But as urban pressure increased, uninvited pickers began to take advantage. “I’m only takin’ two or three. They’ll never be missed.” Unfortunately it eventually became, “I’m only takin’ twelve hundred pounds. They can grow more.”
Farmers complained. They reported their losses but by the time it got to court the evidence had turned black and the district attorney’s office had bigger fish to fry. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client, the defendant, is accused of stealing 12 avocados. He was having a party, wearin’ masks, of course. Safeway was 10 miles away and it was two o’clock in the morning! C’mon get serious. We’re letting felonious shoplifters out on the street!”
The Farm Bureau organized and by working with the sheriff’s department was finally able to convince the proper politicians that the once minor shoplifting of an avocado had grown into a thriving black market and was causing significant losses.
First they passed laws with teeth. Stealing avocados can be a felony punishable by up to one year in prison or $5,000.
They implemented a chain-of-evidence procedure that established a value on the stolen goods immediately so the avocados did not have to sit in the evidence room until the time of trial.
Farmers signed up with the National Property Registration Service, O. A. N. It enabled them to report a theft at 3 a.m. The sheriff’s office punched in their number which had been expanded to include explicit directions to any of the farmer’s groves. Reflective numbered markers, like street signs were posted at the exact locations. Sheriff’s deputies, including their canine corps and helicopter could then converge on the location in a matter of minutes.
With the thumping helicopter overhead lighting the area and snarling dogs in hot pursuit, the midnight thieves soon found themselves treed, tried and trundled off to San Quentin.
Results have been better than expected. Theft is down substantially and the Farm Bureau and sheriff’s office have established a mutually beneficial relationship.
It strikes me that Ventura’s example might be inspiration for other counties around the country where people think ‘pick yer own’ applies to them. Midnight sweet corn thieves, watermelon felons or protesting pilferers would think twice.
However, I don’t think theft has ever been a problem for growers of zucchini. I know we can’t give ours away. It’s like givin’ away kittens. I’ve never seen anyone try and steal one. ❖
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