Walnut thefts baffle authorities, industry
80,000 pounds of the nut stolen from two California facilities
By TIM HEARDEN
RED BLUFF Calif. -- An industry official says he's not aware of any organized black market for walnuts after two truckloads of nuts worth more than $300,000 were stolen from Northern California plants.
A white man with a heavy Russian accent reportedly drove off in a large, white semi truck with loads of unprocessed and processed walnuts that never reached their intended destinations, Tehama County sheriff's Lt. Dave Greer said.
The sheriff's office began its investigation after receiving a call from a freight brokerage firm reporting that one of the truckloads never arrived in Miami as it was supposed to.
Dennis Balint, CEO of the California Walnut Commission, said he had no idea where someone would take 80,000 pounds of walnuts or how he or she would sell it.
"We could speculate all day long what the possibilities are," he said. "But as far as an obvious place to park 80,000 pounds of walnuts, it beats me.
"Eighty thousand pounds is about the annual supply for Mexico," he said. "But the fact is when the price is zero or very little, in this market (a black market) might make sense because the prices are very high."
The thefts occurred Oct. 19 at C.R. Crain and Sons Inc., in Los Molinos, Calif., and Oct. 23 at Crain Walnut Shelling, Inc., in Los Molinos, Greer said. The facilities are owned by the same family.
In each case, the man who picked up the walnuts was not the person hired for the job. Mike Wallace, chief financial officer for Crain Walnut Shelling, declined to comment about the thefts. Officials from Seattle-based FC Bloxom Co., which reported the initial theft, did not return a call seeking comment.
"Obviously shelled walnuts would be a little more difficult to unload," Greer said. "I don't know what they would do with them. There's obviously a market out there for them. Where they would deliver them to have them processed, I don't know."
Meanwhile, two shipments from Diamond Foods, Inc.'s Stockton facility by freight carriers with proper credentials did not arrive at their intended destinations, the California Farm Bureau Federation reported.
Smaller-scale walnut thefts were reported throughout the state last year, the Farm Bureau noted. Balint said the walnut commission has been working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture on enforcement issues in light of the smaller thefts.
Though it's possible the nuts could have been taken out of the country, Greer said federal authorities haven't been called in on the Tehama thefts because "we don't know that they left the state of California."
Balint encouraged handlers to be extra careful in dealing with truckers and consigners.
"I know if I were a handler right now, I would be very interested in doing business with people I have a working relationship with," he said. "If it's a matter of a shortage of trucks, you still have to be careful."
California Walnut Commission: http://walnuts.org