A commentary from Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Jim Holte.
A seed has been planted in the form of a bill to update laws pertaining to farm machinery on Wisconsin roads. It faces a short growing season and it's crucial that we get this crop harvested by April.
Last fall I stressed that an update of our state laws to allow farm machinery to be legally on our roads was long overdue, and a size-neutral debate. Proposed legislation has been introduced by State Sen. Jerry Petrowski and State Rep. Keith Ripp. These rural lawmakers deserve praise for taking the lead on such a complicated issue.
Yet there are those who are asking why Wisconsin needs to do anything on this issue. My answer to them is simple. We have no choice.
There's a widespread misconception that farm equipment has always been exempt from road weight limits. That's never been the case. Just because you can buy it, doesn't mean you can drive it on roads. This bill aims to increase maximum weight limits by 15 percent for farm equipment (for both total gross vehicle weight and weight per axle), a provision that should be seen as helpful to farmers, and yet the bill remains contentious.
A typical combine with a head attached to its front weighs more than 20,000 pounds on its front axel. That means its owner could be currently pulled over and cited for being overweight. The last thing we want to have happen is farmers being ticketed for trying to harvest their crops. We run that risk when everyone (from your local sheriff to your neighbor with an ax to grind) knows which pieces of machinery in your shed will be illegal on the roads this year.
Now is not the time to put our heads in the sand. We must get this done or face a situation where we will have no recourse.
Without a compromise, how long will your town and county officials tolerate you breaking up roads? How long will neighbors accept traffic jams or dangerous conditions resulting from excessively wide equipment?
Fortunately, this bill does not just address road weights. It also makes needed updates to the definition of what is considered an implement of husbandry (farm machinery). Take, for example, trucks that are custom made for farm purposes. Some might say they should be a commercially licensed truck, others (including the authors of this legislation) would say they are farm machinery. It's those kinds of questions that prompted the Department of Transportation to initiate a conversation to update farm machinery laws.
There are no laws that limit the width of machinery, and this bill does not change that. However, safety concerns have prompted a call for lighting and reflective markings on farm equipment.
Finally, town and county road officials have legitimate concerns about heavy equipment traveling on roads. Local governments are seeking a permitting process that could determine when and where combines can travel on roads. Farmers are likewise wary of the red tape and roadblocks such a process might produce. The bottom line is everyone must come to the table to ensure that farm machinery can safely and legally travel our roads.
I know there are skeptics reading this who think their own local law enforcement has no interest in enforcing weight limits. Are they aware of the recent uptick in county sheriff's departments buying portable scales?
The Wisconsin Legislature will adjourn in April and will not convene again until January 2015. Suppose this fall we have widespread enforcement of weight limits in rural Wisconsin. We will have no place to turn for help, and no one to blame but ourselves for not getting this done.
My challenge to you is clear. Call our legislators today and urge them to get this bill passed. Wisconsin's Legislative Hotline is 608-266-9960.
President of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation since 2012, Holte is a grain farmer from Elk Mound in Dunn County.