CLAYTON — It’s planting season for farmers, and they have a request of drivers: Please, be patient.
More than ever, farmers must use highways to move large pieces of equipment because competition is forcing them to work more fields that often are separated by subdivisions. Tractors, combines and sprayers might top out at 20 mph on the road and stretch up to 18 feet wide, often extending well into oncoming traffic.
In the last decade, North Carolina roads have seen about 200 accidents a year involving farm equipment, according to the state Department of Transportation. In the past three years, those crashes resulted in 15 deaths and 330 injuries.
Accidents with farm vehicles are especially dangerous because of the difference in speed and size of the vehicles involved. Picture a 4,000-pound car going 55 mph and coming upon a 20,000-pound tractor.
Randy Edwards, who farms in the Archer Lodge community, says that in spite of precautions such as flashing lights on his tractor, drivers seem surprised to see him.
“They just run right up on you,” Edwards said. “They don’t realize that farm machinery is not moving but 20, 25 miles per hour. And they end up just going fast.”
Edwards raises cattle and grows soybeans, wheat, sweet potatoes, tobacco and hay. He says parts of Smithfield Road near Archer Lodge and Covered Bridge Road near Wendell are particularly dangerous because so many people use them to go to and from work. He’s been lucky, but he expresses frustration at the lack of patience people often have with equipment.
“They just need to slow down and respect the farming equipment, ’cause we have to produce the food and the product,” Edwards said. “We don’t like to move it, but you have to move it to get the job done.”
Farmers are working more land than ever to survive. In North Carolina, the average farm size has grown from 67 acres in 1950 to 160 acres in 2007, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“To meet the economies of scale where it’s feasible for an operation to continue, you need more acres,” said Dennis Durham, chairman of the Johnston County Farm Bureau. “You just have to do more volume to stay in business. I don’t see that trend changing.”
Finding those additional acres, though, means spreading out, said Tim Britton, an agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Johnston County.
“They’re having to go further to find farmable land,” Britton said. “A lot of the available land was taken up for housing development.”
Farmers could once farm all they needed within a 5- or 6-mile radius, Britton said.
Now they must go as far as 15 to 20 miles. Britton knows farmers who had to travel more than 100 miles to buy farmland in South Carolina.
Farmers say they take precautions against accidents, including the flashing lights and triangle warning signs on their equipment. They’ll try to pull to the side of the road periodically to allow cars to pass, but sometimes it’s hard to find a safe place to do that.
Britton said wide equipment can be hard to pass even when the farmer pulls over.
“Even with the attachments pulled tight to the body of a tractor, many are over 20 feet long and 18 feet wide, and moving off to a narrow shoulder does not give much space for a car to pass,” Britton said.
Farmers say they try to move equipment only during the safest times. In other words, not during rush hour.
“We realize they have a job to do, and we try to stay off the road during that time as best we can,” said Tom Vinson, a Clayton-area farmer.
Vinson, who raises beef cattle, soybeans, wheat, hay and tobacco, has been hit once. “A guy was behind me, and something got in his eye and he hit me from behind,” he said.
Drivers frequently don’t know how to deal with the slow vehicles.
“Some of them top out at 15 miles per hour,” Vinson said. “A lot of people don’t realize that when they come up behind you, especially if they’re talking on the cellphone.”
In a 2003 N.C. Department of Labor study, Regina Luginbuhl found that 65 percent of farmers thought most people would obey traffic safety laws if they knew them and suggested posting “slow-moving vehicle” signs along roadways to remind people to watch and slow down for farm equipment.
In addition, when asked their top suggestion, 40 percent of farmers surveyed put “widen the shoulders on given roads so I could get out of the way.”
But many farmers agree that if people would stop using their cellphones and pay more attention, things would go more smoothly.
“If everyone would just be patient, then I think we could get along fine,” Durham said.