You have to wonder if New Zealand avocado growers have considered themselves immune to the rampant pilferage that's plagued California in the past. After all, what good New Zealander would sneak onto an orchard in the middle of the night and make off with a few hundred unripe alligator pears? Isn’t wholesale fruit and nut thievery largely an American phenomenon?
These are the questions dozens of avocado producers in the Bay of Plenty on New Zealand’s North Island have been asking in recent months as they wake to find they've been robbed blind by brazen thieves capable of swiping upwards of 350 avocados at a time before disappearing into the night.
Three-hundred fifty avocados? That’s a whole lot of guacamole — and certainly enough heisted Hasses to bring tears to the eyes of your most #avocadotoast Instagram-obsessed friends and co-workers.
According to The Guardian, there have been 40 large-scale avocado heists in New Zealand since January while many smaller instances of theft have likely gone unreported to authorities.
As mentioned, most of these horrific acts occur during the middle of the night and involve small teams of bandits swooping into vulnerable orchards and either hand-picking or “raking” the trees of their fruit. From there, the black market ‘cados are trucked off and unloading at “pop-up road-side stalls, grocery stores or small-scale sushi, fruit and sandwich shops in Auckland.”
Simply not enough buttery goodness to go around
So what is prompting thieves to pilfer avocados and offload them on the black market?
Simple. Brought on by a poor growing season in 2015 and skyrocketing local demand, prices for the creamy cash crop have risen to roughly 4 to 6 New Zealand dollars — that’s roughly $2 to $4 per avocado in U.S. dollars.
As the folks at New Zealand Avocado explain to The Guardian, a staggering 96,000 additional Kiwi households began purchasing avocados in 2015, likely a side effect of the Great Avocado Toast Photography Scourge. But seriously, it’s like everyone woke up one morning madly in love with the avocado, a fruit that's grown so inexplicably trendy in recent years that it’s now widely hated by those who enjoy regularly consuming them.
I suppose you could think of the avocado as the Gwyneth Paltrow of single-seeded berries.
In turn, the sharp increase in local demand threw off Kiwi growers accustomed to producing the fruit for export. With growers unable to meet demand, avocados in New Zealand have been rendered both spendy and scarce.
Like in New Zealand, avocado-adoring Australia also suffered a shortage of the fashionable fruit earlier this year as the result of fires, heavy rains and dramatically increased demand. While the situation in Australia didn’t result in reports of large-scale avocado theft as it has in New Zealand, Aussies were crestfallen when some supermarket chains started placing limits on the number of avocados customers could buy.
Although native to Mexico, the versatile and mega-tasty avocado has grown to become New Zealand’s third largest fresh fruit import behind kiwifruit and apples. Avocado production is the livelihood of roughly 1,800 New Zealand growers according to the New Zealand Avocado Growers Association and Avocado Industry Council. Australia is New Zealand's top avocado export market followed by Singapore, Japan and Thailand.
Hot Hass: A nation on the brink
In New Zealand, authorities claim the black market fruit being hawked at roadside produce stands and in small stores is inferior to what one might find at an established supermarket chain. In fact, the immature fruit is largely inedible.
“They are unripe, some have been sprayed recently and they may still carry toxins on the skin,” explains Aaron Fraser, a police sergeant in the coastal community of Waihi, to The Guardian. Although the hot fruit "can carry risks," Fraser notes that "with the prices so high at the moment, the potential for profit is a strong inducement for certain individuals.”
Fraser, who has emerged as somewhat of an authority on purloined avocados due to the media attention surrounding New Zealand's heinous avo-crimes, explains to Stuff.NZ that local authorities have one suspect in mind following a recent heist of 350 avocados from an orchard in Athentree. “There is someone making a living of stealing avocados and selling them on to the black market. Anything that is going to make them money, they are going to hook on to."
Bumper crop to the rescue?
New Zealand's avocado overlords are confident the rash of commercial avocado thefts occurring around the Bay of Plenty will soon likely cease as this year’s bumper crop should become available within a few weeks, driving avocados back down to their normal, more palatable price.
“It’s an easy way to make a quick buck, but I don’t think we are dealing with a sophisticated or highly organised operation here, more opportunistic,” Jen Scoular of New Zealand Avocado tells The Guardian. “This stolen fruit will only have made it to the local markets, it would never reach our export markets.”
Scoular goes on to note that many growers, wary of falling victim themselves, have installed security alarms and lighting to ward off would-be avocado thieves.
For the security system-free orchards that have been targeted, the loss is significant.
Scoular explains to Radio New Zealand:
"If you look at last season we sold about 25 million avocados in New Zealand, this is probably maybe 1,200 or 2,000 avocados, so it's quite small but the orchards that are targeted, they may well have lost a quarter of their crop for the year, so in some orchards there will be a significant loss."
Ouch. Scoular adds: "Our season's been very short, last year we had a low supply, we're just starting the new season, we only eat avocados from New Zealand in New Zealand, so that real demand has created this very negative story and very negative activity,”
In the United States, California is both the largest consumer and producer of Hass avocados (the most ubiquitous, cultivar with its trademark black, pebbled skin) with those living in Los Angeles gobbling up massive quantities of the sandwich-ready crop. New York City, Dallas, Phoenix and Houston are also top avo towns. Florida is the country's top producer of lower-fat green-skinned avocados, which are far less popular than Hass avocados on the whole but remain the fruit of choice in the Caribbean.
Mexico — followed by Chile, Peru, Colombia, the U.S., New Zealand and Indonesia — leads the world in avocado exports. The U.S., where avocado was largely a "West Coast thing" until a longstanding ban on the import of Mexican-grown Hass avocados was lifted in 1997, is the world's top importer of avocados followed by the Netherlands and France.