Avocado growers say thefts are skyrocketing and they are the targets of organised gangs supplying a black market fuelled by high demand for the pricey fruit.

Bay of Plenty orchard owner Dianne Cheshire is feeling "wretched" after losing up to $5000 of crop in a series of repeated "hits" by thieves.

"It stings me to the marrow of my bones. We know these trees as well as we know our children."

She says other orchard owners she knows are suffering anxiety and broken sleep.

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Full moon was a "lethally dangerous" time for orchard owners, she said.

"We were hit on full moon on June 22. The whole of the Western Bay was aglow so the thieves could whistle in and out."

Last week Cheshire's daughter and her young grandchildren noticed the light of two cellphones scanning the canopies of the trees in the orchard.

"By the time the police arrived with a dog unit they had made away in a getaway car."

In another incident, Cheshire confronted two carloads of thieves in broad daylight,

"They were all women, with kids with them, all armed with plastic bags busy loading my fruit into them. When I approached one woman said 'careful lady you don't have a heart attack' and I replied, 'if I do at least I am guarding my hard earnings'.

Cheshire believed they were planned attacks.

"They know what they are doing, picking from a 45 degree angle, they identify exit routes and putting fruit in piles to come back to it."

The volume of thefts also convinced her that these were planned hits with a commercial outlet for on-sale.

"Either through retailers who are happy to accept fruit from non-traceable supply lines or Farmers Markets."

A Northland avocado grower said this week thieves have stripped his orchard of up to 70 per cent of the fruit - at a loss of about $100,000 - which was pointless as it is months away from being ready to harvest.

Graeme Burgess, of Kaikohe, said over three weeks the thieves had gone on to his orchard under the cover of darkness and raided a bulk of the 550 trees on his Mid North property.

The 75-year-old said the orchard was his sole source of income and he was going to be in financial difficulty following the theft he estimated to be about $100,000.

New Zealand Avocado chief executive Jen Scoular said the association was aware thefts had been increasing and said there had been some prosecutions.

As well as warning orchards to be vigilant, lock gates and report suspicious behaviour, the association had distributed 150 laminated posters in the region warning that avocado stealing was a crime.

Scoular urged the public to be wary of black market avocados that were very cheap and had stalks still on indicating that they had been raked from the tree.

"People should be okay to ask a retailer, where did these avocados come from".

She herself had recently spotted 'hot' avocados being sold at a fruteria, and one of her directors was offered cheap avocados when buying sushi.

David Stewart owner of Tauranga's Fresh Market Gate Pa said he always purchased fruit from his known growers but was aware the black market existed

"We get calls offering and I just put the phone down."

Avocados had come down from a high of $5 a month ago to $2 per fruit he said.

"Because growers fed up of thefts have actually picked early."

He didn't expect prices to come down any further. "They are a fruit high in demand."

A police spokesperson said while they were aware avocado thefts were an issue, but they had "netted some good results."

"Fruit thefts cause great distress to the orchardists who rely on their crops for income, which is why we want all the information we can get on suspicious behaviour in rural areas."

The spokesperson said police were continuing to work closely with orchardists and said many were taking steps to improve security including CCTV and hidden cameras.

Police were also actively engaging and educating fruit shop owners in areas where stolen avocados were suspected of being sold.

Dianne Cheshire has now put up security fences and cameras. She doesn't enter the orchard without her staffy-cross Bruce and her cellphone, at the ready to call police.

What you should do

Police recommend orchardists call 111 immediately upon finding offenders on the property. With any sightings of suspicious persons or vehicles, it also helps to discreetly take a photo at the time.

Police ask residents to not put themselves in danger or take the law into their own hands if confronted by offenders.

Police say if a shop owner has knowingly purchased stolen avocados they could potentially be charged with receiving stolen property.

All avocados harvested in New Zealand are clipped, leaving a small stalk "button". If the avocado stalk looks very long, or if there is a hole where the stalk should be, it is possible the avocados have been stolen.

Source: New Zealand Police

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