(March 3, 2010: Read an update on this story here.)
By DARRIN YOUKER
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Like many farmers in Mercer County, Pa., Enos Troyer relies on his children to help with the busy times of spring planting and fall harvest. But, if federal regulators have their say, anyone operating a tractor in Pennsylvania must be over 18.
That has a number of Keystone State farmers worried as planting time approaches.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed a series of regulations aimed at operators of farm equipment in Pennsylvania. Those regulations would require farmers to keep logs, prohibit anyone under 18 from working a tractor, and anyone operating a tractor or other farm equipment would need a medical certificate.
These proposed regulations, which are set to go into effect March 1, would treat farmers much like interstate truckers, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has said. The organization is lobbying federal lawmakers to overturn the regulations.
Officials with the USDOT did not return phone calls seeking comments.
Burden for many
For Troyer, and other Mercer County farmers, the regulations will be cumbersome, if not impossible to comply with.
“I’ve got children that are under 18 that are old enough to handle a tractor,” said Troyer, who farms 300 acres near Greenville. “I depend on family. I’ve got a daughter who is 15 and she is going to help me out this year with the planting.”
Norm Morrison, a member of the Mercer County Farm Bureau, said he’s been reaching out to Amish farmers in the area to let them know about the proposals.
The Amish farmers in the region, many of whom use gas-powered tractors, rely on their children for help. The federal government’s regulation will cripple local operations, Morrison said.
“Those kids work on the farm as soon as they are able to work a tractor,” he said. “Not being able to put a person under the age of 18 on a tractor is one of the most ridiculous hoops to jump through.”
Why ag focus?
Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said Pennsylvania is being singled out with these regulations because of a recent federal review of the state’s motor carrier standards.
Regulators in the USDOT have threatened to withhold highway funding to Pennsylvania if these regulations are not enforced, Shaffer said.
“You are putting undue stress on our farmers,” he said.
Requiring medical certificates, and asking farmers to keep log books of the time they’ve spent traveling on the road, are unnecessary regulations that put a burden on farmers, Shaffer said.
No common sense
However, the most cumbersome regulation will be the one that does not allow farm children to help on equipment, Shaffer said.
“Anyone with a family farm, during the peak times of the year, the children help out,” Shaffer said. “They are the future of agriculture and they are part of the family business.”
The state farm bureau is actively lobbying Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation to overturn the regulations. Pennsylvania farmers are simply unprepared to meet these new mandates, he said.
“Like most things in government, until a crisis hits, no one wants to react,” he said. “Just getting someone to act is difficult.”
Sam Weaver, a Mercer County grain farmer, said he does not understand why Pennsylvania is being singled out for the enforcement of these new regulations.
Weaver’s 1,000-acre farm is located near the border with Ohio, and some of his land abuts the state line.
Farmers in the Buckeye State will not have to follow the same rules as those in Pennsylvania, Weaver said. That is simply unfair, he said.
“They put in laws that you simply can’t obey. You either ignore them or go out of business,” he said.
Weaver has three teenagers who all pitch in and help with the day-to-day operations on the farm. Weaver said he could not afford to hire help if his children cannot work on the farm driving equipment.
“The people this affects have no say,” he said.
Here’s a look at what the federal government has proposed:
— Age restrictions: No one under the age of 18 will be able to drive a farm vehicle, including implements, with a combined weight of more than 17,000 pounds.
— Medical certification: Drivers must receive a valid medical certificate to determine if they are physically qualified to drive. Drivers of farm vehicles weighing more than 17,000 pounds will also need a certification whenever the truck is operated more than 150 miles from the farm.
— Driver’s logs: Drivers will be subject to similar hours of service as trucking companies. Those standards include break time and keeping a log of driver’s activity.
— Vehicle inspection: Farmers will be required to conduct pre-trip inspections and complete written post-trip safety reports.
(The author is a writer based in Temple, Pa.)