[FTW readers are used to seeing stories about fuel thefts in Nigeria and Indonesia. Only the smuggest and most arrogant would think that it can’t, won’t – or isn’t – happening here. In addition to having to worry about security for this precious commodity, farmers, who tend to buy diesel in bulk quantity are now having to become economic forecasters as they try to guess when to buy their essential diesel and how much. – MCR]
High Fuel Prices, Stolen Fuel and Poor Crop Yields
FTW Staff Writer
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June 21st 2006, 10:16am [PST] – New York– Around the world the economic and social fabric of “fuel security” is drastically changing throughout the countryside. Not only is the skyrocketing price of diesel fuel hitting farmers where it hurts, so are criminals. Diesel and gasoline thefts have recently been reported throughout rural sections of Britain,1 New Zealand,2 Australia,3 New York,4 and in Merced County, California5 where copper wire was also reported stolen from Hunter Farms.
Scott Hunter, owner of Hunter Farms, said although he has seen rural ag (agricultural) crimes on his family farm for many years, during the past two years – as diesel and copper prices have risen dramatically – the pace has really picked up. "Copper and diesel are the biggest issues in ag crime," said Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman Scott Dover.6
The rising price of diesel is making fuel more attractive to criminals in rural areas, where bulk fuel is often stored in unlocked sheds. In Australia, Albury County Police have just appointed a fulltime rural crime investigator, Sen-Constable Scott Barton.
“(Farm property owners) should always remove keys from vehicles, lock properties and sheds when away, inform friends or neighbors when going away for long periods and ask them to make regular checks of the property,” he said.7
This trend is not isolated to the countryside. Fuel theft is rising everywhere:
New Zealand MTA reports increase in petrol theft.
Thieves siphon $1,200 of diesel from Montana Food Bank Network.
Thief siphons 5,000 litres of fuel in British Columbia.
500-gallon fuel trailer stolen in Florida.
Thieves going after gas in Hawaii.
Gas theft in Chicago.
Fuel thieves become more devious.
People are taking precautions as gasoline theft rises in Southern California.
The Economics of Fuel on the Farm
Diesel prices usually rise in the summer, making the spring a good time for farmers to stock-up. But price-spikes came early this year in March just as tractors were gearing up for the planting season. This has left many farmers wondering when the right time will be to buy in bulk.
"Buy when you need it," recommends Mike Howard, co-owner of Lakeview Petroleum in Yuba County. "You only buy as much as you need. Don't buy for the whole year, not when it's this high. It's too late to buy for the whole year." 8
But price increases may be seen again in the near future. Rising fuel prices are a general long-term trend, so summertime increases could be just around the corner. Farmers who chose not to stock up on fuel this spring because of the price may be in for a shock come harvest time. The guessing game of when to purchase diesel fuel in bulk is not fun, nor easy. The upward trend in the price of diesel is hard on farmers, but it is a nightmare for truckers who are an integral part of our modern food chain. They have to pay the price at the pump, which is much higher than the bulk rate.
As FTW readers already know, high fuel prices are also reflected in the cost of pesticides and fertilizers. The “oilification” of agriculture that is a direct result of the green revolution is now starting to feel real stress, although the system is not bursting at the seams – at least not yet.
To adapt to all of these higher prices farmer John Voelpel said, "We are making some adjustments like the guys don't idle the tractors too long. If they stop in the field, they shut them off, or turn off the air conditioning that cools the cab."9
Using manure instead of commercial fertilizer when possible, combining till and planting methods to reduce tractor use, and making sure tire pressures are always adequate may help farmers partially absorb the increasing costs of hydrocarbon products for the time being. But these are only band aids.
The final judgment comes from the real boss – nature. Farming is not for the lighthearted, even when using the modern marvels of hydrocarbons in all their various forms. Growing food depends upon the generosity of the land, air, water and sunlight all magically working in unison to sustain the process.
The wheat forecast for this year has gone from bad to worse, with production lows not seen in decades.10 Dry temperatures resulted in unexpected insect damage. While it is good for farmers that wheat prices are currently high, it is meaningless if they can’t grow the bushels to get to market. The rice crop planted in Louisiana has been reduced by 30% after Hurricane Rita carried salt water many miles inland into the fields and bayous.11 Rice experts are unsure what’s having the hardest impact on the coming harvest – the contaminated fields and bayous or economic conditions.
Today farmers are relying more heavily on jobs away from their land in nearby towns and cities to stay alive. The economics of modern agriculture in America requires taxpayer subsidies to offset massive losses constantly faced by farmers while their incomes continue to decrease significantly.12 Net farm income in the United States is expected to total $56.2 billion this year, down 22.3 percent from last year.13 On multiple levels modern agriculture is simply unsustainable and that trend can only get worse for oil-dependent farmers.
Hardship is not uncommon in agriculture; never has been, never will be. But if a perfect storm brews where any or all of the above mentioned variables hit hard enough, the results could be catastrophic. What will hurricane season and climate change bring us this year? Where will drought hit the hardest? How high will the price of diesel get and how quickly will it rise? How desperate will criminals become?
Unfortunately it may take catastrophic change before people ask themselves the most important question of the 21st Century: “How are we going to eat?” But we must admit that another question they may have to ask is, “How much risk are we willing to take to keep thieves from stealing our fuel before Peak Oil does?”
1“Fuel price link to diesel theft,” BBC News, May 18, 2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/south_of_scotland/4993818.stm
Peter Brown, “Diesel Theft Alert Grows,” TNN.co.uk, May 17, 2006 http://www.tnn.co.uk/UKNews/Crime/plonearticle.2006-05-16.1143786309
Graeme Smith, “Farmers told to tighten security after diesel theft,” The Herald, May 18, 2006 http://www.theherald.co.uk/news/62247.html