Avocado rustling has reached such proportions in Southern California that the state has its own avocado cops.
Just-released state figures show that, in their first year of operation, the investigators have uncovered 283,000 pounds of black-market fruit.
California's $200-million avocado industry this year has lost about $10 million to rustlers, about half of that from San Diego County, according to Warren Currier, executive secretary of the Avocado Growers Assn. in Fallbrook. The North County community is a major producer of the fruit known as "green gold," which can fetch $1.50 and more apiece at supermarkets.
"We're hearing case after case of people losing fruit," Currier said. Although growers have stepped up policing of their own groves, avocado thieves have responded with growing sophistication, he said.
Industry observers say avocado stealing blossomed two years ago from petty thievery to organized crime, spurred by higher market prices after three winters of freezes and a five-day heat wave last year.
About half the state's avocado groves are in San Diego and Riverside counties, each of which has been assigned a full-time avocado cop. Two more officers split Orange and Los Angeles counties between them, and a pair work in Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, inspection coordinator Jim Covey said.
Fruit and vegetable stands at the Escondido Swap Meet were out of avocados Wednesday morning when the investigator dropped by to inspect the fruit. One of their regular suppliers, a San Luis Rey man who operates out of the back of his pickup, hadn't shown up yet.
Instead, Daniel Ortez was sitting on his truck bed with four boxes of ready-to-sell avocados in the California Avocado Commission parking lot across town, where he had gone to certify the avocados that he had purchased from an area grower before heading to the swap meet.
Tom Barbour, supervisor for the state's certification program, said Ortez's 200 pounds of avocados, packed in sturdy banana boxes, were being held at the office until receipts of the purchase could be verified with the grower.
Inspectors check for receipts and certification stamps to verify that the goods haven't been plucked illegally from the state's 68,000 acres of avocado trees, Barbour said.
"Growers all over the state put a lot of time and money into their crops, and these thefts are really hard on them," he said. "For a while, the problem was very blatant, but now they know we're checking up on them."
For the past year, six avocado investigators have rummaged through restaurants, wholesale outlets, swap meets, roadside stands and farmer's markets looking for stolen goods, making from 15 to 20 stops a day.
Although avocado thefts are a statewide problem, officials say they have reached epidemic proportions in the southern half of the state, where there are more groves and more uncertified avocados being recovered.
Covey said the investigators check to see if the avocados match up in type and amounts to the receipts. They also make sure the receipts and certification stamps aren't bogus.
"It may seem unusual to have avocado investigators, but growers are getting ripped off left and right," said Donella Boreham, supervisor for the state's avocado inspection services. "It's a lucrative business."
Although investigators are finding fewer violators than they did a year ago when they began the market-level inspection program, avocado busts are still common, Covey said.
"As long as thieves are selling the fruit at half-price, people are going to keep on buying the stolen goods," Covey said, adding that violators are usually small restaurants, roadside stands and produce markets, not large supermarkets.
But those in the industry say the word is out, and avocado buyers are being more selective to avoid being cited by inspectors.
If an avocado retailer cannot come up with a legitimate receipt, Covey said, the fruit is confiscated and the dealer is cited. After three citations, the avocado commission usually challenges the repeat offender in court, with penalties as high as $5,000 if found in violation, he said.
"It's too expensive to try to sell stolen avocados," said Mario Banuelos, owner of an Escondido market that was inspected Wednesday. "I don't want be slapped with a $5,000 fine."
Banuelos said that, when he opened his store two years ago, avocado distributors would try to entice him to buy their black-market fruit at lower-than-normal prices.
"They would bring the loose avocados in banana boxes, but, if they didn't have that stamp on them, I wouldn't buy them," Banuelos said.
Greg Thatcher, packing house manager for an Escondido-based avocado growing, packing and shipping operation, said thieves stole about 2,300 pounds from his company, Cal Flavor, last year.
"People cut through fence wires, or they hide the fruit under leaves in the day and come back at night to get them," Thatcher said. "They're pretty well-organized."
Alarmed growers are beginning to invest thousands of dollars in private security guards and chain-link fences, hoping to deter thieves.
Although most of the state's avocados have already been picked for the current crop season, industry officials say next year's crop, expected to weigh in at about 300 million pounds, will still attract thieves, since prices are expected to stay high.