Booby traps and armed patrols are increasingly common deterrents against theft

Credit: Bloomberg Creative Photos/Getty Images

As anyone who’s been to a produce section recently can imagine, avocados are a lucrative business. There’s an argument to be made that they quite literally represent money growing on trees. The financial opportunity has already inspired black market activity, including cartel interference in Mexico’s industry. Now, coordinated avocado burglaries are a fact of life in New Zealand.

That’s led regional producers to take matters into their own hands when the law can’t intervene, frequently employing their own sophisticated alert and anti-theft systems. As New Zealand’s avocado market has swelled to a size of NZ$198 million (US$129m)—with individual avos routinely selling for NZ$7.50 (US$4.89) in domestic supermarkets— growers have been forced to reinvest their profits in security systems to slow down thieves whose cunning has increased in proportion with potential earnings.

It’s become common practice among orchards over the years to install electric fences, CCTV cameras and motion-sensor lights in an attempt to thwart theft, but even that hasn’t been enough to abate the crime sprees.

The extent of the produce pilfering has left some growers incredulous. “It’s hard to get your head around the things that happen for the sake of a fruit,” Southern Produce director Alistair Young told The Guardian. “We’ve had more than a dozen incidents this season, and gangs coming back a second and third time once they realise they can get away with it.”

That’s inspired some growers to grow even further. They’ve installed armed patrols, alarm systems, and booby traps rigged to firearms (loaded, for now, with blanks), all in an effort to compensate for what they regard as the inability of the police to stop thieves in their tracks—let alone do something about stolen product by the time it’s sold through Facebook posts or at roadside stalls.

“Police don’t have the time or the manpower here to race into the back blocks and chase down avocado burglars, so its up to growers to protect ourselves,” Ron Bailey, a 78-year-old grower from Te Puke says. “We haven’t seen the worst of this, because we’ve not yet reached peak avocado.”

One shudders to think what might happen by that time. In addition to the frequency of robberies Young cites, another avocado raid has cost one grower to lose roughly NZ$100,000 worth of product. The Guardian also indicates that at least two growers have been attacked this season as a result of raids.

Barring intense police intervention or the collapse of the global avocado market, it sounds like the avocado arms race in New Zealand will continue to escalate as long as livelihoods are on the line.

“You used to get shot for rustling horses, you don’t get shot for stealing avocados,” grower Ashby Whitehead ominously mused. “At least not yet.”