California farmers combat fuel thieves

As fuel prices climb high, farmers are facing a menace not seen yet in the Old West: the diesel rustler.

A generation of farmers who grew up leaving the barn door open has taken to posting field hands to watch over diesel tanks at night, and locking up gas pumps even as thieves invent new ways to siphon fuel from farm equipment.

Peter Dompe, who grows beans and almonds in Crows Landing, some 90 miles southeast of San Francisco, sleeps overnight in his truck hoping to catch fuel snatchers. He said thieves have made off with thousands of dollars' worth of diesel he uses to run his tractors.

Ranchers still face the old-fashioned cattle rustlers, but now have come to terms with finding fertilizer stockpiles missing, tractors gone at dawn and entire orchards uprooted in the still of night. Rural detectives compare the recent spate of thefts to a rash of larceny during the 1970s gas crisis.

And, with each fuel hike, the cost of crime has more impact.

From January-August, more than 53,000 gallons of gas and diesel fuel were reported stolen in the San Joaquin Valley he oversees, resulting in a loss of US$110,213.

The hit from those thefts is bound to worsen, given the recent rise in fuel prices since Hurricane Katrina forced many Gulf Coast refineries to shut down or scale back operations.

Diesel is the most common fuel for agricultural work. In California alone, farmers use more than 1.5 million gallons of diesel a day at the peak of harvest, much of which bulk fuel distributors deliver directly to the fields.

Farmers throughout the San Joaquin Valley, the state's most productive agricultural region, say it's common to find tractors sucked dry of diesel, bulk fuel tanks busted open in fields and storage units raided of gasoline barrels.

According to aythorities the sheer volume of farms in the valley also means the opportunities for pilfering and reselling agricultural-use gas are far greater in the area that grows much of the nation's produce, the AP reports.

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