18 Sep 2018

Fighting back against the avocado crime wave

8:16 am on 18 September 2018

Avocado growers are sleeping in their orchards, patrolling the streets at night and using CCTV to protect their 'green gold' from organised crime groups and a fruit blackmarket.

Maxine Graham and Robin Hanvey.

Maxine Graham and Robin Hanvey. Photo: RNZ/Susan Strongman

Earlier this year, Robin Hanvey - an extremely tall man in his sixties, who sports a white handlebar moustache - was knocked to the ground and beaten up by two men who he came across on his property as he was heading inside for lunch. "They just took to me," he says.

Avocado grower Robin Hanvey after he was beaten up by two men.

Robin Hanvey after he was beaten up. Photo: Supplied

He's now recovered from the attack, and in the safety of his home, is sitting on a plush leather couch, sandwiched between his golden retrievers Honey and Libby. Hanvey places his cup of tea on the on the coffee table next to a plate of toffee pops and pulls a cellphone from the pocket of his cotton overalls. "The only reason they stopped was because two girls who were driving down the main road stopped and yelled at them... If it hadn't been for those two girls, they'd still be beating me up. That was the only thing that saved me."

As Hanvey speaks, he scrolls through photos on his phone, until he comes across one taken by his wife, Maxine Graham, in the aftermath of the attack. His face is dripping with blood and his spectacles are broken. Hanvey says he reported the assault to police, but the attackers were never caught.

The property has a steel, electronic front gate gate that's always closed now, and a 2-metre-high electrified fence skirts part of the perimeter of their property. The fence cost Hanvey and Graham thousands of dollars and took months of hard work to build. It seemed their only choice.

This wasn't the dream when, in 2003, the couple bought a strip of bare farmland wedged between State High 29 and the Wairoa River, in the foothills of the Kaimai Ranges. With the help of friends and family, Hanvey and Graham began the painstaking task of planting 600 avocado seedlings. It took the avocado trees seven years to start fruiting enough for a crop to be viable, and then from the time they flowered, up to a year for their first fruit to mature enough to be picked and sold.

Earlier this month, directly below a neighbourhood watch sign on the busy state highway, thieves cut a hole through the mesh fence, shimmied under an electrified wire and stole fruit under the cover of darkness. Graham says that every year, for about the last six years, they've been targeted by thieves - sometimes several times in a season. It hard to quantify, but they believe they've lost more than $20,000 worth of fruit.

"It's just continual," Graham says of the thefts. "The thing that is really galling about it, is it takes a whole year and a lot of hard work to grow an avocado. They are stealing our livelihood."

Robin Hanvey walks past the 2-metre high electrified fence that runs along State Highway 29.

Robin Hanvey walks past the 2-metre high electrified fence that runs along State Highway 29. Photo: RNZ/Susan Strongman

***

From razor wire and CCTV to electric fences and neighbourhood watch groups, some avocado orchardists are taking extreme measures to protect their crops.

"People have tried all sorts of things," Graham says. "They've tried camping out in the orchards, night watches… but as you get older that's not a great option. And you shouldn't have to do that. You're entitled to sleep in your own bed at night time, without worrying about some thieving little... thing. It's happening everywhere. No one's immune from it."

In July, at least 40 properties in the Bay of Plenty - the area where most of New Zealand's avocados are grown - were targeted by thieves, some more than once, Senior Sergeant Chris Summerville of Tauranga police says. He calls the fruit "green gold."

Thieves typically lay something beneath the trees - a tarpaulin, sheet or duvet cover - and use a garden rake to remove the avocados. A whole tree can be done in five minutes this way - leaving the pilferers with 500 to 600 avocados to load into their car.

Beneath a tree near the boundary between Hanvey and Graham's property and the river, about 10 fat, green avocados lie in the leaf litter. Hanvey points to a red Bic lighter lying nearby. "We don't smoke," he says. A few days earlier, two men stealing fruit from the orchard were disturbed when the pair returned home from the cinema. The thieves dropped everything, and fled down to the river bank. On some of the avocados, the stalks are long, or have been removed completely, leaving a small, round indentation at the top - a telltale sign for consumers when identifying stolen fruit. But others have the button at the base of the stalk intact, the way professionally picked fruit appears on the shelves. "They're getting smarter," Graham says.

Some of the fruit that was abandoned after thieves were disturbed at Hanvey and Graham’s property.

Some of the fruit that was abandoned after thieves were disturbed at Hanvey and Graham’s property. Photo: RNZ/Susan Strongman

Summerville says some of the thefts in the region are highly organised - with people passing stolen avocados onto a distributor who has contacts at restaurants, stalls and fruit markets willing to buy the black market fruit. Some are travelling into the Bay of Plenty from other regions, like Waikato, to steal avocados. "Really we feel it's become a criminal enterprise, given the price of avocados… No other fruit in the region is targeted in this way, to this extent."

Those caught stealing the fruit can be charged with burglary, and face up to 10 years in prison if convicted, and buyers also risk facing criminal charges. But that doesn't put everyone off. At the beginning of August, Lemuella Huriwai and Joseph Smith were arrested and charged with burglary, while a third man, Cheol Kim, was arrested and is accused of on-selling the fruit. (All three have denied the charges.) On the evening of August 22, a 32-year-old man from Tauranga was arrested and charged with burglary of avocados from a Welcome Bay orchard.

Police say the arrests were made with the assistance of orchardists, some who have installed CCTV to help them keep watch over their properties, and with the help of vigilant members of the public taking down car number plates and reporting suspicious behaviour.

One such vigilant member of the public is self proclaimed "old bugger" Ivan Parish, president of the Katikati Night Owls, established 2002. For the last two years, as well as keeping an eye on the Western Bay of Plenty town, members of the group have patrolled the roads around nearby orchards from about 9pm to 1am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, focusing mainly on areas targeted by thieves.

There are between 30 and 40 Night Owls. They work in pairs and carry police radios. "We can't get out of the vehicles or anything like that, we just patrol around," Parish says. "We're always in contact with police. On the odd occasion we see [suspicious] cars, we take number plates down, but there's not a great deal we can do - if we see someone we'd be straight on to the radio and get police down there." Parish believes the number of thefts has fallen s since the group been watching orchards, but they only cover a small part of the region, and are dependent on donations to operate.

Avocado thefts are an ongoing problem. Back in 2002, police warned frustrated growers, who were taking the law into their own hands to protect their crops, not to carry guns. Bay of Plenty orchardist Hugh Moore recalls a meeting in about 2008 between police and other property owners wanting to put a stop to thieves targeting a loop road in Katikati.

"We had every orchardist down the road - we must have had a meeting of thirty, the police came along, so we knew our rights and what not to do. We weren't allowed to shoot [the thieves]. On Kauri Point there's two roads in - we had two people in cars and we sat at the end of the road and monitored every car in from about seven o'clock at night to about three o'clock in the morning." Moore recalls becoming involved in a high speed chase with a thief he spotted when he was coming home from the gym one morning. Police eventually caught the person on his way to Auckland.

In early July, avocados worth about $100,000 were stolen from a Northland property. The fruit was not due to be picked until between October and November, orchard owner Graeme Burgess said, so it would never ripen. And in the early hours of a November morning in Gisborne last year, a 19-year-old driving a people mover rammed a police car, and narrowly missed running over two officers before leading them on a high speed chase that involved arson and throwing rocks at other motorists, after he was caught stealing avocados.

And it's not just a New Zealand problem. Queensland police recently charged a man with stealing four tonnes of avocados over a 12-month period, last year, the LA Times reported workers from a produce company in southern California pilfered $300,000 worth of avocados, and, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, the lucrative avocado market is run by violent cartels, according to the New York Times.

New Zealand's avocado industry is worth between about $150 million and $200 million a year, and in May the price of the fruit hit an all time high (an average of $5 for a 200g avocado.) Around the same time, a photo collage of avocados in a New Zealand supermarket selling for $6.99 each, next to the fruit in Australia selling for $1.50 each caused a stir on social media, and a headache for industry body Avocado New Zealand, as outraged people flocked to their Facebook page to complain.

But as the organisation's chief executive Jen Scoular explains, it's a simple case of supply and demand. Avocado season in New Zealand is from August to March. When they're out of season, and in short supply, the price goes up. "It's a bit like the price of cherry tomatoes, strawberries or asparagus," she says. New Zealand doesn't import avocados, so the fruit that is available outside those months has been on the tree (they do not ripen until they've been picked) more than a year.

"[The tree] flowers and fruits in November and we will start picking them the following August, but that whole season goes to the following June," Scoular says. "So those avocados that you're paying $5 for, the grower has had to look after them for nearly 18 months on the tree."

Of course, looking after a fruit for that long, only to have it stolen, is leaving orchardists exasperated, and police say there is a correlation between high off season avocado prices and an increase in thefts.

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Photo: RNZ/Susan Strongman

Despite police urging the public not to buy stolen avocados, demand for the fruit continues to fuel a black market. Police have come across stolen avocados being sold at markets in Auckland, sushi restaurants and fruit shops in Waihi, and even on Facebook.

"We wouldn't know exactly where they are going," says Scoular. "Most retailers will require a food safety certificate for produce that they buy, and the volume of avocados stolen - although quite significant for an orchardist - isn't significant in terms of a volume a [major] retailer might need, so we believe most of them are ending up in farmers' markets, in sushi stores, and in dairies or at fruit shops."

Growers say fruit that is stolen from trees too early will never ripen, meaning consumers eating it will find it to be hard, flavourless and watery.

***

Until March this year, Graham and Hanvey ran a lawn mowing business to supplement their income. They don't have KiwiSaver. The orchard was their retirement plan. They can't insure their crop - there's no way to quantify the number of avocados, or if there was, the premium would be too high. They're frustrated, and they're sick and tired of being the poster boys for avocado thefts every time the media does a story. But for now, they seem to have no choice.