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Watch for slow moving farm equipment on the roads

Give farm equipment time to find a place to pull over on narrow roads so you can pass.This is the season for local farmers to be on the roads with slow moving farm machinery — trucks, tractors and combines — and motorists need to keep that in mind.

Whether sharing traffic lanes with farm equipment on congested highways or on the county roads around Molalla, the general advice from the Oregon Department of Agriculture is the same — be on the alert, slow down, and have patience.

Already this summer, Molalla area farmers have complained that motorists ran a tractor off the road near Coleman Farm, narrowly missed crashing into a tractor and used abusive language towards drivers of farm equipment.

“On Union Mills Road, I was taking a left on my big tractor with a huge bucket on it, and I stuck my hand out to make a left-hand turn, and a lady with kids in her car tried to pass me on the left and nearly hit me,” said Molalla farmer Tracy Koberstein. “Then she had the gall to stop and yell at me to ‘Go back to Mexico you stupid Mexican.’ The thing is, she would have rammed her car right into that bucket, and it would have been her child that would have been injured in the crash, not her.”

Would you pass this tractor at this spot?Koberstein said farmers call Barnards Road the Barnards International Raceway because cars race down that stretch at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. That could prove lethal should the car suddenly come upon farm equipment. He said at least five people died on that road in the last few years from speeding.

“Last week some guys were moving a couple of John Deere Swathers — big mowing machinery with 15 foot wheels -- going as fast as they safely could down Barnards, and there were people trying to pass them and then jam in between the swathers to miss getting hit by oncoming traffic,” he said. “Someone is going to get killed doing that stuff, and it will probably be the person in the car, because we farmers are basically driving tanks.”

It is legal for farmers to drive equipment on public roads. Farmers normally try to avoid using higher traveled roads as much as possible, but sometimes they have to. With urban development moving closer to agricultural operations in recent years, there is an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents involving farmers and non-farmers. There are no such signs on Clackamas County roads in the Molalla area -- but there should be.Statistics provided by the Oregon Department of Transportation indicate 33 vehicle accidents involving farm equipment in 2012 and 31 accidents in 2011. Unfortunately, the accident numbers are trending up, which is prompting a number of organizations, such as the Oregon Farm Bureau, to spread the word about summer traffic safety.

“The constant message is slow down when it comes to the summer harvest season,” said Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “If you see farm equipment on the road, please slow down.” Just as more urban motorists are on rural roads, farmers are busy planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops. Sometimes this requires a tractor, combine, or farm truck to be out on the road, driving between 10 and 25 miles per hour to get from farm to field.

According to Oregon statutes, that is perfectly lawful, as long as the equipment has a clearly visible triangular, orange-and-red Slow Moving Vehicle (SMV) sign on its back end. That sign is a warning for drivers to slow down immediately. According to the ODA, nearly all the accidents involving farm vehicles the past few years have taken place on dry pavement in the light of day.

“What’s going to happen is some poor farmer is going to get sued, and he’ll end up losing everything he worked for because some driver crashed into his tractor,” Koberstein said. “I saw a farmer driving a berry machine safely, and drivers were giving the poor guy hell.

The worst ones are women, when it comes to being offensive. Every time I’m on the road it seems like I get the finger, and we are just trying to make a living.”

That orange triange on the back means this farm equipment travels less than 25 miles per hour. Highways 213 and 211 have a smooth surface, but since those are also the busiest roads in the area, farmers avoid them like the plague, he said. Sometimes, however, a farmer will have to move a piece of machinery on the highways, to get from one field to another.

“We try our best to keep off the main thoroughfare and stick to the county roads,” he said. “But for people going to work in Portland, the fastest route is racing down Barnards Road to grab the freeway. So for us, Barnards is a nightmare, like Union Mills. I predict that within the next five years, someone in Molalla is going to get killed because they crashed into a farmer. It won’t be the farmers fault, but he’s the one who will get sued.”

For farmers like Koberstein, the problem with motorists stems mostly from the fact that rural areas have become home to former city-dwellers, commuters who don’t seem to realize that farm roads are used by farmers.

Transplanted urbanites and suburban dwellers often find themselves in traffic with large, slow-moving farm equipment. They feel held up on their way to work or another destination and take unnecessary risks.

“My whole concern is Molalla isn’t Molalla any more,” he said. “It’s a bedroom community with people who didn’t grow up around farms. It used to be that kids grew up in this town knowing about farms and farming — it was part of our heritage. But the town has changed.”

A crash caused by a speeding motor vehicle coming up behind slow moving farm equipment.Koberstein said since farms are larger now, made up of a patchwork of large parcels, that results in really large equipment needing to travel the roads to get from one parcel to the next.

“Things have changed, it’s not 10 or 20 families with small compact farms anymore,” he said. “Farms now are pretty big, so equipment has to move from field to field. The reason they are bigger is because the families are smaller — so we are using less machinery that is a larger, more efficient size, like the swather that does 14 miles per hour cutting grass. That machinery flies through the field, and so it can do more fields in less time. But get that same machine on a rough county road, it doesn’t work. Barnards was a gravel road in the 50’s and the county came and poured tar on it, and then maybe later a layer of rocks, and that’s all it is — tar and rocks. It’s still a narrow farm road, and in the winters, the surface sinks in places and it’s not smooth. Farm equipment doesn’t have shock absorbers, so we have to drive slow. So maybe we can only do 10 miles an hour.”