Skyrocketing diesel prices prompt an increase in farm thefts
Sutter County grower Casey Hoppin knows the impact that fuel theft has on farmers. The problem with these thefts is that farmers frequently don't discover the theft until they need the fuel to keep their equipment operating.
Spurred by skyrocketing fuel prices, thieves armed with bolt cutters and empty tanks are converging onto farms and ranches to extract diesel fuel from large tanks and equipment that farmers use on a daily basis to run their operations.
One farm manager at a vineyard in San Joaquin County was stunned one morning when she realized that almost two tanks of off-road, red-dyed diesel fuel had been drained from the farm property in the Linden area. The farm suffered a loss of about $13,000 for about 3,000 gallons of diesel.
"In mid-May, thieves broke into one of our vineyards and drained out our two diesel tanks. Each tank holds 1,700 gallons and I had just filled them up," said Antonia Contreras of Linden, who manages a vineyard with her husband, Bernabe Iniguez. "I had used a little bit out of one tank, but it still had quite a bit of diesel left."
Contreras added that the thieves cut the latch to a vineyard gate to gain entry to where the tanks were located. The loss of fuel caused problems the following morning when it was time to irrigate.
"When we realized that thieves had taken the diesel, I couldn't do any irrigation and had to order more diesel fuel," Contreras said. "They did not come out until the following day. So while we're waiting for the fuel to arrive, the crops suffer."
Like Contreras, farmers everywhere not only have to protect themselves from thieves, they must also pay the higher cost of fuel that is causing thieves to come out of the woodwork in the first place. Depending on the amount of fuel ordered, as of June 12 the on-road diesel fuel price ranged from $4.76 to $4.87 per gallon. The red-dyed fuel (which is free of state and federal taxes) for off-road use, the June 12 price ranged from $4.11 to $4.22 a gallon.
Danielle Rau, California Farm Bureau Federation director of rural crime prevention, recommends that farmers and ranchers implement additional security measures and report all crimes and suspicious activity.
"As with any commodity, when the price goes up, so does the theft rate. Farmers and ranchers should pay close attention to the amount of fuel being used for their own purposes so they know when a theft has occurred," Rau said. "If you come up short, make sure you are reporting the thefts—no matter how small—to local law enforcement and consider putting up security cameras near the tanks or investing in fencing or heavy-duty locks.
"Thieves are looking for quick and easy access so the more you do to diminish those qualities, the less attractive target you become," she said.
In San Joaquin County, deputies have received an increase of fuel theft reports from farmers since the cost for the fuel has been on the rise. For instance, San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department's Rural Crime Unit took the following fuel theft reports: On June 2, about 400 gallons of diesel fuel were stolen; on June 9 an estimated 490 gallons of unleaded gasoline were stolen, and on June 10, a tanker truck that contained 250 gallons of diesel was stolen. Deputies say the reports continue almost daily.
"We've been getting hammered for months," said Detective Shelby Oliver of the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Task Force. "We've taken numerous reports of diesel and regular gasoline fuel thefts. Thieves are basically driving up, cutting the locks off and taking the fuel. The gas prices have gone crazy, but diesel prices are even higher."
When ordering fuel, Oliver recommends that farmers avoid filling tanks all the way to the top. She asks that growers get only what they need and ask fuel companies to make deliveries more often.
The owners of the farm Contreras manages in Linden plan to take protection a step further by installing cameras and are even considering hiring private security to watch the farm property.
Casey Hoppin, Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau second vice president and a third-generation farmer who grows rice and melons in Sutter County, said he, like many other farmers, knows fuel gets stolen but cannot provide any further details.
"I don't have any specific instances where I know I've had diesel fuel stolen. I just know it gets stolen," Hoppin said. "If you get aluminum pipe stolen or a battery stolen, it is something you can see, something you can count, something you notice is gone. With diesel fuel, they can steal it without being noticed. It is one of those things that I can tell you it is happening but I can't tell you why and I can't prove it."
In addition to the loss of the fuel, Hoppin said, farmers may also face several hundred dollars worth of damage to equipment.
"You can put a locking gas cap on a tractor, but then the thieves puncture your tank or they cut your fuel line and then you not only have the loss of fuel, but you have damage to the equipment," Hoppin said. "I think the biggest answer for protection is having a known presence of our law enforcement."
Early this fall, Hoppin recalls that 5 gallons of gas was stolen. It was a minor theft until he later learned that the person he suspected being responsible for the theft was walking around a local convenience store trying to sell 5 gallons of gas he had collected in a 5-gallon can.
"People don't bother to report, but when you do report the crime, you get the officers to come out to where the crime occurred and they are making a presence there," Hoppin said.
With the price of diesel fuel at a record high and the inherent vulnerability of farms and equipment, farmers and ranchers are encouraged to implement the following strategies to protect against fuel theft:
- Do not leave agricultural equipment in the fields and at unfenced properties unattended and especially over the weekend. Move equipment to secure, locked locations.
- Secure gas pumps, gas tanks and storage bins with strong locks, sturdy padlocks with hardened steel hasps or deadbolts with a 1-inch throw. Some farmers have taken the extra precaution to weld metal covers around the lock so that the only person who can gain access is the person with the key.
- Do not "top off" equipment when fuel is delivered. Also, when grouping equipment, be sure the fuel tanks face the street. Do not hide fuel tanks on an unobserved side, providing cover to thieves.
- Install plenty of lighting and cameras that help local law enforcement get a vehicle description or see who is committing the thefts. Infrared cameras help and lighting could distract thieves.
- Farmers typically place fuel tanks to allow easy access to equipment. Deputies recommend placing the tanks by buildings and by areas that make it less convenient for a thief to get in and out without being detected.
- Post no-trespass signs and signs that indicate a reward will be offered for information that leads to an arrest and conviction for thefts or vandalism that happen at the farm.
- Report all thefts and any suspicious activity to your county sheriff's department.
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.