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Thieves make off with 140,000 pounds of California walnuts

Authorities are trying to crack the latest case of a California walnut crop being pillaged by thieves, this time robbing a farmer of $400,000 in lost profits.

The theft reported on Sunday involved thieves making off with 140,000 pounds of walnuts in the small Central Valley town of Escalon. The heist was described as one of the biggest to hit the booming industry.

Last month, 12,000 pounds of walnuts worth $50,000 were stolen from a trailer parked on California 99 in Sutter County, north of Sacramento.

The thefts, which so far have gone unsolved, are frustrating farmers who expend significant resources growing, maintaining and then harvesting the crops, only to see them disappear right before hitting the market.

The theft on Sunday reportedly required breaking into a facility and taking three large bins packed with nuts. The nuts were taken from GoldRiver Orchards, which declined to comment.

“It was just brazen,” said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation. “They took a massive amount -- several truck loads. We need to find these folks.”

Agricultural theft is a major problem in California’s farm counties -- not the least because the state provides so many valuable products. Targets include avocados and cattle.

Rising prices for the walnuts appear to be driving the recent thefts. Farmers are earning about $2 a pound for walnuts today, up from about $1.85 last year and 60 cents just a few years ago.

In the Sutter County theft last month, thieves used buckets to scoop up the loot and dump it into their own trailers.

“They just opened up the bottom, and picked the walnuts up with buckets, and then brought trailers and vans, and that’s how they took the walnuts,” said grower Jaswant Bains, according to CBS13 Sacramento.

Walnuts are California’s fourth-leading agricultural export, thanks to emerging markets such as China. At the same time, the state supplies almost all the walnuts consumed in the United States. 

China remains the world’s leading producer of walnuts, but the United States is a close second, according to Rabobank.

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david.pierson@latimes.com

Twitter: @dhpierson

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