Farmers driven nuts by fruit raiders
In just a single night armies of looters can strip several orchards
● Organised crime syndicates are plundering the country’s fruit, grain and vegetable farms, threatening national food security.
Seemingly a sophisticated operation, one syndicate even ran a depot in the mountains around Limpopo where stolen avocados were ripened. Desperate farmers have resorted to digging trenches to keep thieves out, as sophisticated measures are often bypassed.
In 2017 alone, thieves stole nearly R600m worth of fresh food in raids carried out on thousands of farms across SA.
KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Western Cape — where most of the fresh produce for export is grown — are worst hit.
Top of the syndicates’ hit lists are avocados, bananas, grapes, macadamia nuts, apples, pears, mangoes, oranges, apricots, peaches and grains.
A study released on Thursday by Unisa’s Bureau of Market Research and AgriSA revealed agricultural-related crimes cost the economy about R18bn.
The National Agricultural Sector Crime Survey, which surveyed the country’s 38,000 commercial farmers, showed that the financial losses from the theft of field crops such as maize amounted to R230m, and the theft of horticultural crops such as fruit cost R155m.
For Limpopo avocado farmer Zander Ernst, who farms in Tzaneen, the thefts are devastating.
“These guys descend into an area with armies of people who strip orchards on several farms in a single night. For the past five years we have been raided at least five times a year. But we are not even the worst off.”
He said that earlier this year thieves were caught with a minibus taxi full of stolen avos.
“On average when these guys raid they will steal about R20,000 worth of avos in a night. During the 30-week harvest period, the syndicates can steal at least R5m worth of avos from farms just in Tzaneen.”
They are well organised, with their own ripening centres and pack-houses. Ernst said farmers recently discovered a packing shed in the nearby mountains, by tracing back batches of unripe avos that had arrived at Johannesburg and Pretoria fresh produce markets.
He said one night’s worth of theft from his farm was equivalent in value to a month's pay for five workers.
Christo van der Rheede, AgriSA deputy executive director, said the syndicates operated nationally, targeting farms with highvalue foods such as avocados, nuts, grapes, citrus and deciduous fruits, and grains. Syndicates knew how the produce value chain worked, and operated with markets where they could sell their loot.
Van der Rheede said given the stringent regulations which governed exports, the products would usually be sold locally. “We do believe, though, that thieves operate with black markets in neighbouring countries which could send produce abroad.”
Van der Rheede said farmers were reporting a definite increase in such thefts over the past three years. “It’s vital this is addressed to protect our food security and economy. If we don’t, both established and emerging farmers will be wiped out.”
Agri Western Cape CEO Carl Opperman said there was not an area in the province that was not affected. “Orchards, fields and vineyards are being wiped out.”
The raiders were often children, who if caught were released by the police into their parents’ custody.
“Another problem is if the thieves are caught with the fruit, it can’t be proved the produce is from a particular farmer. They have to be caught red-handed.”
Pieter Vorster, of Agri Letaba in Limpopo, said the syndicates operated on orders for specific produce and supplied a massive market locally and internationally.
Barry Christie, operations manager of the Southern African Macadamia Growers’ Association, said the direct losses from theft of nuts from farmers and pack-houses was more than R200m. Syndicates sold the majority of their loot locally but also smuggled it to China, the US and Europe.
According to the Unisa survey, farmers spent R1.9bn in the past year on security.