Silver Lake Thieves are stealing copper wire from irrigation equipment on eastern Kansas farms, costing the owners thousands of dollars in repairs and endangering this year's corn crop.
Six farms in the Silver Lake area have reported the theft of copper wire since May, said Shawnee County Sheriff's Lt. Martha Lutz. The thefts have cost farmers between $4,000 and $11,000 per incident.
About 20 farmers met with Shawnee County Sheriff Dick Barta on Thursday to complain about the situation. Barta told the farmers he understood their anger.
"You have every right to be," he said, "but be careful."
The thieves' target is "span cable," which carries several strands of heavy copper wire for the electric box controls on pivot irrigation systems.
Gordon Michels, who sells irrigation equipment in St. Marys, said thieves can get 1,300 feet of span cable per irrigation unit.
They then can sell the copper to scrap dealers for up to $2.30 per pound, less than the $4.50 per foot farmers must pay to replace the wire.
"It's a problem that reaches coast to coast," said Tim Goldhammer, vice president of marketing for Reinke Manufacturing Inc., a Deshler, Neb., company that sells irrigation equipment.
"There are situations where the copper has been stolen multiple times off the same machine," Goldhammer said.
Michels said the thefts render the irrigation equipment useless, a painful situation as many corn stalks are growing ears right now and demand high amounts of water. He said a farmer could lose 20 to 30 bushels per acre if he or she isn't able to irrigate.
Farmers said the damage is covered by their insurance, but they're afraid it will increase their premiums.
Barta said his office is working on a strategy to track down copper thieves, including talking to salvage dealers who often keep incomplete records from whom they buy scrap metal.
A new state law went into effect in July requiring salvage dealers to record names and addresses and a description of what is sold.
Goldhammer said Reinke Manufacturing sells a warning system that will alert farmers within six minutes if their irrigation equipment loses power.
"The only time I think someone would be getting rid of span cable is if a machine had been totaled by a tornado," Goldhammer said.