New Zealand’s avocado thieves have been forced to get creative this season by selling their stolen wares on Facebook as police intensify efforts to catch them.
With local and global demand for avocados showing no sign of abating, there have been dozens of night-time raids on orchards by thieves across the upper North Island since July.
Sergeant Trevor Brown from Western Bay of Plenty said the avocado crime-wave had escalated since last year.
Brown said growers felt besieged and some were taking matters into their own hands by chasing thieves they spotted on their property.
“Orchardists have been a lot more vigilant because of last year,” said Brown.
“We are seeing thefts on a commercial scale. We are seeing thousands of dollars of fruit stolen in a single hit and people’s livelihoods are getting ruined … it is not like just stealing a couple of mandarins off your neighbours tree, we take it very seriously.”
Last year, police reported most of the stolen fruit cropping up in pop-up roadside stalls, and small shops.
This year however police have investigated “a number of instances” of criminals using Facebook to sell hot avocados, after police began patrolling fruit shops in-person this season, to check-up on any underhand avocado dealings.
“From a positive perspective the criminals might be taking to social media because the ability to drive up to a road-side stall and sell a crate of avocados on the sly for $50 has got harder this season,” said Jen Scoular, CEO of New Zealand Avocado.
According to New Zealand Avocado, the industry body, in 2015 an additional 96,000 New Zealand households began purchasing avocados, and local growers – largely geared towards the lucrative export market – have been unable to keep up with the surge in demand.
The recent thefts have taken place in the middle of the night, with the crop either “raked” from the tree and collected in blankets or sleeping bags on the ground, or hand-picked and driven away.
Some thieves are using an intermediary to sell the stolen fruit, said Brown, a criminal partner who “may look more respectable” to front up and pose as a legitimate orchard owner.
The only avocados available in New Zealand are grown in the country, and the season runs from August to March.
In the off-season this year the price of avocados peaked at NZ$7.50 a fruit, and with plates of smashed avocado and sushi stuffed with salmon and avocado remaining perennial favourites on menus around the country the incentive for thieves to flood the black-market was strong, said Scoular.
The domestic and global demand for avocados has helped fuel growth in the New Zealand industry, which has swollen from NZ$70m in 2013 to NZ$198m in 2017. New Zealand exports avocado to ten countries, and it has become the country’s third largest fresh fruit export.
The industry reported its highest ever value in 2017, with avocados sales reaching $198m – an increase of $64m on last season. A record of 7.7m trays of avocados were produced in the 2016-2017 year, an 84% increase on last season.
NZ Avocado said all markets showed an increase in demand, but particularly Australia, which had an “almost insatiable” consumer demand for the fruit.