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Thieves Stealing Coachella Valley Date Palm Shoots

Agriculture: To deter a growing black market, ranchers paint stumps various colors to make them easier to identify.

April 14, 2002|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At least 95% of the nation's dates are grown in or near California's Coachella Valley, but in recent years, the emergence of the date palm as an ornamental landscaping tree of choice has dramatically increased the value of the industry, which is now battling a problem of theft.

Although the dates themselves require intensive labor to grow and turn out well only in the hot desert climate of the Coachella Valley, with its particular ground water and rainfall patterns, the trees flourish over much wider areas of Southern California.

And though fully grown trees are difficult to uproot and transport, offshoots that sprout from the trunks are easy to cut off and steal.

Once planted, these shoots grow into copies of the mother tree that can be sold on the black market for $60 to $250, depending on their size.

Tim Burke of the California Date Commission said about 2,000 offshoots were stolen from date palm growers in 1999.

Although commission efforts to combat theft reduced those numbers in 2000 and 2001, thefts are on the increase again, he said.

Earlier this month, Riverside County sheriff's deputies arrested an alleged ringleader of palm thieves, Miguel Santana, 48, of Thermal on suspicion of grand theft, receiving stolen property and conspiracy.

Two men who said they were working for Santana told authorities they stole 73 tree offshoots valued at about $6,600.

Santana was arrested in another date palm theft case last year, and convicted of a misdemeanor of receiving stolen property.

This time, Burke said, date commissioners hope he will be charged with a felony and serve extensive jail time.

Law enforcement officials recently have become more interested in prosecuting such cases, realizing that the thefts have grown into a considerable business, Burke said.

Dustin Wiley, deputy agricultural commissioner for Riverside County, said the most recent crop report shows that in 2000--the latest year for which figures are available--5,376 acres in the Coachella Valley were planted in date orchards and that 3,710 of those acres were bearing fruit.

Burke said it takes the trees five or six years to bear fruit and 10 years to produce maximum yields.

As a means of detecting the thefts, he said, ranchers have been painting the stumps of the offshoots various colors to make them easier to identify. It is something akin to branding cattle, Burke said.

John Beck, executive director of the California Date Commission, said the sale of dates brings in about $36 million a year.

He had no estimate of the annual value of the stolen offshoots but said, "We're hoping to publicize the theft problem so people will be aware of it."

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