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Convicted avocado thief latest in growing problem -- crop rustlers

October 24, 2011 |  2:28 pm

Avocado patrol

The 10 avocado sentence seemed, well, different.

Barron Stein, an admitted avocado thief in North San Diego County, was prohibited by the courts from possessing more than 10 avocados at a time. For the next three years, that’s all he can have –- whether it’s in a shopping cart, the pantry or a bowl of guacamole.

Stein was accused of making off with up to 1,000 pounds of avocados from a grove in Bonsall, a small town near Fallbrook.

He said he swiped the popular and typically pricey fruit because he was desperate for cash to support his family.

While Stein’s case was settled the way you’d expect things to be settled in a farming town, it also speaks to a larger problem -– crop rustlers.

Avocado thievery became such a nagging problem in the early 2000s that the district attorney’s office in San Diego County launched a three-month undercover sting investigation called Operation Green Gold.

The sting culminated with the arrest of the owner of a packing house in Fallbrook, a place where authorities claimed avocados were essentially “laundered” and then sold on the open market.

"I hope this will send a message of reassurance to our agricultural community: We take the issue of 'undocumented' fruit very seriously," Deputy Dist. Atty. Elisabeth Silva said at the time.

In that bust, authorities also scooped up 5,500 pounds of sweet limes and 1,600 pounds of lemons –- all stolen. But the avocados, clearly, were the king of the cash crops on the black market.

An estimated 95% of the nation's annual avocado harvest comes from California, and San Diego County accounts for about half of that, followed by Ventura, Santa Barbara and Riverside counties.

More recently, farmers in Ventura County formed Farm Watch to fight back when thieves started stripping avocados from the trees or speeding off with crates of the popular fruit.

Armed with cellphones, farmers and growers keep an eye on the orchards and groves, sending emails and photos to authorities or even agricultural interests in neighboring counties.

"Crime follows the harvest," one Farm Watch member advised. "It doesn't stop at county lines."

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-- Steve Marble

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