The past two years have been good for pecans — so good, in fact, that there's been a spike in pecan theft from California to Georgia. And it's not people swiping a few nuts from a tree in someone else's backyard, but theft in amounts that could land someone in jail.
Greg Daviet's century-old family farm has harvested pecans in Las Cruces, New Mexico, since 1965. This year, Daviet tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, an increase in demand from Europe, the Middle East and India has led to a price hike, with China as the top importer.
"I am not an expert on it by any means, but they are apparently considered a delicacy," Daviet says. "They're primarily used as gifts during the Chinese New Year."
In past years, the price of pecans has been around 60 cents a pound. This year, they are about $2.85 per pound in New Mexico and surrounding regions. Trees are often planted more than a decade in advance, so predictions can be hard to make on how much crops will sell for. High prices in one year can help sustain farmers during the low-price seasons.
More valuable crops mean farmers have another problem to deal with: pecan thieves.
Daviet says tens of thousands of pounds of pecans are being stolen out of pecan orchards every week. So, like other local pecan farmers, Daviet says he has taken to carrying a gun around his farm.
"The most common thing is people coming literally in the middle of the night, shaking nuts out of trees, wrecking them up and then taking them out on their vehicle," he says.
Daviet has security guards and patrols who drive around his 250-acre farm day and night.
He takes pictures of visitors' driver's licenses. "I just don't like being so unfriendly, but unfortunately, I have to be."
Daviet says this is in good measure because farmers face fairly low margins, so if just 1 percent of his crop is stolen, it could be a third of his net income for the entire year.
He says pecan farmers met with the local sheriff's office in December to discuss the thefts.
Stealing hundreds of pounds of pecans is considered a felony, but the industry is working with politicians, law enforcement and the district attorney's office to pass more comprehensive laws to help prevent thefts.
"We've talked about trying to license the buying station, so that if you are buying pecans, you need to have been approved by our industry, know who you are, and you are not someone who is actively trying to buy stolen pecans."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
The past two years have been good ones for pecans. So good, in fact, that from California to Georgia, there has been a state of pecan thefts. Thefts worth thousands of dollars. It's all prompted Greg Daviet to mount armed patrols of his pecan farm in Las Cruces, New Mexico. We called him to find out why pecan prices have risen more than 365 percent in just two years.
GREG DAVIET: One of the major reasons for pecan prices being so high currently is our export market has increased significantly in the last four or five years, primarily China. But we've got pecans going to Europe, to the Middle East. India's coming into the market as well.
RAZ: So why are they so popular in China? Do you have any idea?
DAVIET: I'm not an expert on it by any means, but they're primarily used as gifts during the Chinese New Years. I'm told that when you bring a guest into your home, it's very customary to give them a gift. They're very into healthy foods, and pecans are the healthiest nut there is to eat.
RAZ: In just a few years ago, it was something like 60 cents a pound. Now, I guess this year, the price is something like $2.85 a pound.
DAVIET: It's been a very good year for us. We're price takers. We're not price makers. So whatever the price is is what we have to sell our crop for. And especially with trees where you have to plant them a decade or more in advance of when you're actually going to be selling your crop, we're kind of stuck with whatever the market gives us. So when it moves up like this, it definitely helps us to get through the years that the price is 60 cents and we're all losing money.
RAZ: And these high prices have caused you a big problem, which is why we called you, because people are stealing pecans. There are pecan thieves on the loose.
DAVIET: That's absolutely correct. The most common thing is people coming in, literally, in the middle of the night shaking nuts out of trees, wrecking them up and then taking them out in their vehicle. And it's in the thousands, probably tens of thousands of pounds, you know, every week that are being stolen out of pecan orchards. So it's gotten to the point now that many farmers, myself included, are having to be armed all the time.
Farmers in general tend to face fairly low margins, and so if just one percent of my crop is stolen, it could be a third of our net income for the entire year. And so that'd be like someone having to have four of their months of pay stolen every year. It's difficult to overcome.
RAZ: I read in an article you've been pretty vigilant. Can you describe what you've been doing?
DAVIET: We significantly increased our security. I have patrols that drive by our farm day and night. I have security guards that are on the premises overnight and have become just very unfriendly, unfortunately, during pecan season. When you drive onto my farm, we take a picture of your driver's license, we find out why you're there. And I just don't like being so unfriendly, but unfortunately, I have to.
RAZ: So what's the best way to prevent thieves from being successful once they've stolen the crop? You know, how do you prevent them from selling it?
DAVIET: Currently, there aren't really measures in place. And it's an industry we're trying to work with our legislatures, with law enforcement, with the district attorney's office to find solutions for this. We've talked about trying to license the buying stations so that if you're buying pecans, you need to have been approved by our industry. We know who you are. You're not someone who's actively trying to buy stolen pecans.
RAZ: All right. What's your favorite pecan recipe?
DAVIET: Oh, I'd have to go with pecan pie.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIET: I love pecan pie.
RAZ: That's an easy one.
RAZ: I like pecan-crusted swordfish or something.
DAVIET: Well, I also like chocolate-dipped pecans. I like chili-roasted pecans. You know, I like all pecans.
RAZ: I do too. They're good. And thank you for harvesting them.
DAVIET: You're welcome. Eat all you want. We'll make you more.
RAZ: That's Greg Daviet. He's a pecan farmer in New Mexico talking about a spate of recent thefts in the area. Greg, thanks so much for being with us.
DAVIET: You're very welcome. I was happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.