As peak growing season comes to an end, authorities have urged people to look out for fields of illegal tobacco which could be mistaken for crops of kale, cabbage or corn.
The heightened alert comes hard on the heels of major raids on two farms in regional New South Wales, which netted law enforcement almost 5000 kilograms of illegal tobacco worth $52 million in lost excise.
Australian Taxation Office agents and NSW Police hit clandestine tobacco farms in Thule and the Snowy Valleys region at the end of last month, destroying illicit crops weighing the equivalent of 14 bulldozers.
At the Snowy Valley farm, agents executed a search warrant on March 31 and found two kilns containing a whopping 4000 kilograms of drying tobacco.
Five bales of tobacco and bags of “chop-chop” – street slang for illegally grown tobacco – was also discovered inside a shed and garage on the property.
Tobacco crops were growing on 7.6 acres of land, the ATO said.
Authorities seized two diesel pumps and a tractor during the operation.
During the Thule raid, on March 29, the ATO and NSW Police found four separate fields of illicit tobacco spread over 33 acres.
Agents also found 756 kilograms of tobacco leaves stored on site in hessian bags.
The ATO declared the value of the Thule seizure at more than $40 million.
ATO Acting Assistant Commissioner Megan Croaker said the criminal underworld was often linked to illegal tobacco growing operations.
“The trade deprives the community of millions of dollars of taxes that could otherwise be used to fund essential community services.”
November to May is peak growing season for illicit tobacco crops, Ms Croker said, as she predicted an uptick in harvest activity.
“We urge the community to look out for unusual farm works, earthworks along creeks or riverbeds and large, leafy plant crops that resemble kale, cabbage or corn.”
The ATO has carried out numerous raids on illegal tobacco farms over the past two months, with lucrative, multiple seizures worth tens of millions of dollars.
It has been illegal to grow tobacco in Australia for more than a decade.
Penalties for growing, selling or possessing illicit tobacco can result in up to 10 years’ imprisonment and huge fines of at least $333,000.