LORENZO, Texas — With the price of diesel skyrocketing, farmers and ranchers around the country are being targeted by ne'er-do-wells armed with syphon hoses and pumps.
Sheldon Wilder, who owns a cotton gin 30 miles east of Memphis, Tenn., has endured worse already. Twice in two weeks, he had diesel drained from saddlebag tanks on a truck at his gin. The second time the thieves left the hoses loose and what diesel they didn't steal drained out onto the ground.
"You get irritated, but that's life," he said of the combined 300 gallons taken in the thefts. "It's just people who want some money."
Western Texas cotton producer Mark Schoepf said that with the price of diesel above $4.15 a gallon, he's decided to protect his investment. He recently bought 10 padlocks to affix to tanks that fuel the diesel motors irrigating his fields.
Many of those tanks are visible from a highway bordering his fields, making them easy targets.
"Before, we've never kept them locked," said Schoepf, who is able to store up to 5,000 gallons to fuel his farming operation east of Lubbock. "With diesel prices that high, somebody's going to try to get it."
Schoepf isn't alone. As more motorists buy locking gas caps for their vehicles, farmers and ranchers are also having to take steps to protect their fuel.
The cost of farm diesel is less than the diesel used by truckers and the general public, and thieves either sell it or use it themselves. Some diesel thieves sometimes even use pumps built into vans that roam wide-open fields at night.
"If they're out there in the middle of the night, they're up to no good," said Steve Riley, who works at Crosby County Fuel Association. "It's going to get worse."
Wilder said there is a quasi-black market for diesel that tempts some looking to save a buck or two.
"You'd probably buy it because it'd be a good deal," he said. "A lot of people are hurting. Their purchasing power has been eaten up by the price of gas and food."
Some farmers have had their entire tanks stolen and later found them elsewhere — empty.
Diesel designated for non-highway purposes costs about 60 cents per gallon less and contains a red dye that distinguishes it from regular diesel fuel.
Red-dye diesel can be used in agricultural equipment, such as tractors or combines, and on farms or ranches, which includes feedlots, dairy, poultry and timber operations, and commercial orchards and nurseries. A home garden does not qualify.
The Internal Revenue Service does random, periodic checks for illegal use of the red-dyed diesel at weigh stations across the country, spokesman Clay Sanford said. He said he couldn't confirm or deny whether the agency has stepped up checks.
The federal penalty for using the off-highway diesel on public roadways is the greater of $1,000 or $10 per gallon of the fuel involved. Penalties increase after the first violation.
In Texas, enforcement is handled by the state comptroller's office, which also does random checks at weigh stations. If caught, violators face misdemeanor charges, comptroller spokesman Allen Spelce said. From Sept. 1 through May, the state collected about $41,000 in fines, he said.
Regular diesel is also getting ripped off. In May, a small, rural school district near Waco was hit by a diesel thief who absconded with about 260 gallons, Hallsburg schools superintendent Kent Reynolds said.
Last week, about 700 gallons of diesel fuel was stolen from trucks from two neighboring business in Royalton, Minn. And on Monday, a man was arrested and accused of pumping diesel out of a Salem, Ore., gas station and into a truck and trailer capable holding 1,000 gallons.
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