New Zealand avocado growers may have considered themselves immune to the rampant pilfering that has 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 New Zealand have been asking in recent months as they wake to find they've been robbed blind by brazen thieves capable of swiping upwards hundreds of avocados at a time before disappearing into the night.
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 New York Times, two thieves were caught stealing $4,300 worth of avocados from just one orchard. "It’s clearly not for their own consumption," Alasdair Macmillan, New Zealand’s coordinator of community policing, told NYT. "You can only put so much avocado on your burger or in your sushi."
Another farmer in Northland, New Zealand reported 70 percent of his avocado crop stolen, which was worth $66,000.
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 sold for a large profit.
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 two years of low harvests and skyrocketing local demand, prices for the creamy cash crop have risen to roughly 5 New Zealand dollars — that’s roughly $3.30 per avocado in U.S. dollars, a 37 percent increase from 2017.
As the folks at New Zealand Avocado explained to The Guardian in 2015, a staggering 96,000 additional Kiwi households began purchasing avocados that year, 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.
In turn, the sharp increase in local demand threw off Kiwi growers accustomed to producing the fruit for export. Due to the country's biosecurity laws, avocados can't be imported from other countries, meaning if a Kiwi is craving an avocado it has to come from their native country. 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 in 2016 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 one of New Zealand’s largest fresh fruit exports 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," explained 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."
MacMillan told the New York Times that at least half a dozen reported thefts resulted in charges. However, he said it's often difficult to arrest someone because farmers usually only check their orchards once every couple weeks. Therefore, it's hard to determine when the crime occurred.
"So already the investigation cycle has been slow to begin, and the baddies get three or four weeks’ head start," MacMillan said. "The evidence would be well and truly devoured by then."
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.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in June 2016.