California's Almond Farmers Cope with Thefts

Robert Siegel talks with almond farmer Scott Phippen, who had two truckloads of almonds stolen over the July 4 weekend. Phippen believes the almonds have been shipped overseas, where they can draw a higher price. Other almond thefts have been reported recently — a truckload has gone missing in California's Stanislau County.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We learned from the papers that out in California's Central Valley over July 4, there was a huge theft - a big nut job - an almond caper, actually, although to our knowledge no capers were actually taken. But in Ripon, California, two truckloads of almonds were stolen, and the value of the nuts, 88,000 pounds of almonds, is estimated to be just over a quarter of a million dollars.

They were taken from Travaille and Phippen, an almond company where Scott Phippen is the president, and Mr. Phippen, how did this happen? How could somebody steal two truckloads of almonds?

Mr. SCOTT PHIPPEN (Travaille and Phippen Almond Company): Well, basically, what the thieves did is they cut through our fence and they broke the windows of two of our truck tractors that were hooked onto these two loads. They hotwired the trucks and went down the road with them.

SIEGEL: What does one do if one steals - I mean, I assume this doesn't happen every week in California, but can you imagine what somebody would do with so many tons of almonds?

Mr. PHIPPEN: Well, 88,000 pounds of almonds is an awful lot of nuts. It's not something that you're going to bring home and put in your garage and store them for a while and then go to the local flea market. You'd be lucky to move maybe 800 to 1,000 pounds a year in that method. So whoever did this had a much bigger market.

SIEGEL: I've read some speculation that the stolen almonds could be headed overseas, to markets overseas.

Mr. PHIPPEN: Yeah. The area that the ocean containers were recovered in is a big area for inter-modal transport, so I'm suspicious that the almonds have left the United States.

SIEGEL: This happened over a holiday weekend.

Mr. PHIPPEN: Yes.

SIEGEL: I gather that's why the trucks had not moved out earlier, why they were packed but still on the grounds, yes?

Mr. PHIPPEN: Normally, our practice is here never to leave a loaded container over a weekend. If something has wheels underneath it, obviously it's much more mobile than if it was in the warehouse. And because of the 4th of July coming up the next week, the port was going to be closed for a couple of days. So they had contacted us Friday morning to ask us if we would get the loads ready, and we said yes.

Well, later on that day, they notified us that they weren't going to be able to bring those two loaded containers back to the port. We had to make a decision, and I thought the best decision was to leave our own equipment underneath the containers and make it difficult for them to steal them. And in essence, I did just the opposite. I made it very easily obtainable.

SIEGEL: Now from what you've seen that was done to the fence, to the padlocks, to making off with these containers - what's your guess as to how many people, at the minimum, would have been involved in this great almond heist of 2006?

Mr. PHIPPEN: Obviously, they needed two people to drive the trucks, and they obviously needed somebody to get them out here, because we are pretty rural. I would be there was probably more than three or four people involved.

SIEGEL: This could be the Ocean's 11 of almonds.

Mr. PHIPPEN: Yeah, you might say that.

SIEGEL: Is there a possibility of an inside job here?

Mr. PHIPPEN: Yeah, I believe there is, but not necessarily on the local level here. I think it's somebody that kind of understands the inter-modal system, and maybe they're using computers and the Internet to track potential shipments and intercept them before they get to the ports.

SIEGEL: How does this theft compare with any past experience you have out there with nut theft?

Mr. PHIPPEN: Actually, this is the first time that I've lost nuts, per se, actually had almonds stolen from our facility. We've had all kinds of other kinds of thefts - batteries, tires, tools, that sort of thing, but never anything of this nature.

SIEGEL: Is there any nefarious purpose to which one could put almonds, other than eating them?

Mr. PHIPPEN: No, I think the best thing to do with them is to eat them.

SIEGEL: To eat them - that's about it.

Mr. PHIPPEN: Yup.

SIEGEL: Somebody has identified a market where they could unload a lot of hot almonds.

Mr. PHIPPEN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Phippen, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. PHIPPEN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Scott Phippen, president of Travaille and Phippen, victim of a major almond theft in California. The company lost 88,000 pounds of nuts. Since we spoke with him earlier today, we've learned of another almond heist - a single truckload in Stanislaw County, California, last night.

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