For four years running, at the exact same time of year, New Zealand has been savaged by gangs of avocado thieves. Hayden Donnell sounds the alarm about the country’s most predictable crisis.
They come every year like clockwork. As winter starts to bite, and our summer produce hits its peak price point, the thieves rouse themselves and head out to pillage. They always have the same target. They usually have the same MO. In the dead of night, they steal our avocados.
This year, their timing couldn’t be worse. Most New Zealanders are still reeling from the Covid-19 lockdown. We’re slowly readjusting to normal life: blinking like stunned owls at the white lights of the newly reopened retail stores. Struggling to remember the way to our offices. The last thing we need is another crisis. Unfortunately in this country, three things are inevitable: death, taxes, and avocado gangs. Whether we’re ready or not, they’re about to strike again.
The avocado thieves’ first illicit harvest happened in June, 2016. “Some 40 large scale thefts have been reported by orchards in the country’s north island since January, with 350 pieces of fruit stolen in each heist,” wrote QZ. It blamed a “band of avocado thieves”.
Some reports thought it would be an isolated issue. “The avocado crop is expected to be plentiful this year. When supply and demand of avocados is balanced again, the thefts probably won’t be as much of an issue,” postulated Joanna Fantozzi in The Daily Meal.
Fantozzi couldn’t have been more wrong. The pillaging kept coming. In 2017, The Guardian reported “thefts on a commercial scale”. Thousands of fruits were being shaken from their trees by what seemed to be a sophisticated criminal element.
2018 was just as bad. The Guardian again assigned Ainge Roy to the beat, this time sending her to the epicentre of avocado crime – Katikati in the Bay of Plenty. SBS reported on an avocado “crime wave”. The New York Times Australia headed down to cover our orchard crime. One mustachioed orchardist was beaten up over his avocados.
People laughed at Alasdair Macmillan, New Zealand community policing manager, when he started talking about avocado theft in the media. They would send him emails with GIFs of “an avocado doing a dance”. They’d greet him jokingly as “the avocado man”.
Well who’s laughing now? Not Macmillan, who remains concerned about avocado crime. In each of the last four years, the pillaging has taken place around June and July. He sees no reason the avocados will be spared this year. Another crime spree is, in all likelihood, on its way, he says. “The popularity of that fruit is growing. It’s a really sought-after commodity and all I can say is there’s nothing to suggest the thieves are not going to target it again this season.”
Avocado’s popularity is the first, most obvious, factor behind the annual crime spree. New Zealand’s avocado industry went from having a net worth of NZ$70m in 2013 to becoming a more-than $200 million business today. Millennials’ affection for the fruit has been cited as a reason for its thriving black market.
Price is the other key driver. The initial round of thefts in 2016 came in conjunction with a shortage of avocados, which saw prices for the fruit rise to between $4 and $6 on average. In 2017, media reported on avocados selling for $7.50 each. In 2018, avocado prices again smashed records. The headlines may as well have been glowing neon signs saying ‘steal me’ over every ripening avocado in New Zealand.
The thieves grew bold. They also became more sophisticated. While some simply walked around orchards with a rake and an old duvet cover, others staked out a properties, discovered opportune entry points, and harvested thousands of avocados in the dead of night. Macmillan calls them ‘avocado gangs’ because he believes the thefts are being carried out by organised, well-equipped groups.
This year, he wants security to be a step ahead, though he won’t say what exactly that will entail. “Obviously you can’t actually say what we’re doing because the thieves will keep an eye out for it, if you know what I mean,” he says. “Like in the old days in the television programs with [crime] reconstructions, you’d show the fingerprint guys at work, and then the criminals all started wearing gloves.”
Macmillan will say that orchard owners are investing in equipment like CCTV and motion sensor technology. Police are also more attentive to the problem, given its taken place four years running. But it’s impossible to station an officer outside every orchard. He’s hopeful another, even stronger, defence is on hand this year – the sense of community fostered during our alert level four lockdown. “I would like to think that one of the unintended consequences of Covid-19 is that we are looking after our neighbours.”
In Macmillan’s eyes, the best defence against an avocado thief is an avocado watcher. Stopping another avocado crime wave will take a collective effort. So keep your eyes on your orchard. Keep your eyes on your neighbour’s orchard. And if you see someone in an orchard who shouldn’t be there, raise the alarm.
Safer avocados, together.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.