DOT announcement: No new regulations on farm machinery operators
In recent weeks some farm groups, farmers and lawmakers have voiced concern about the possibility that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) might make regulatory changes that would affect farmers' ability to move their equipment on public roads - even requiring farmers to get commercial drivers' licenses (CDLs) to drive tractors and implements.
Drivers with CDLs are required to get a medical exam to prove they are fit to drive and must log their hours in official books. But that won't be happening following an announcement from the DOT last week.
It began earlier this year when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a separate agency within the DOT, began investigating what it said were "wide differences" among states in how the "for hire" and related agricultural exceptions were being applied.
At that time, FMCSA asked state officials to cease all new entrant safety audits on farmers engaged in crop-sharing leasing and issued a public notice asking for input on the use of farm equipment on public roads. Federal laws in place now allow the states to decide whether to issue CDL exemptions for some drivers. Many felt that FMCSA was looking to create uniform national standards - standardizing requirements from state to state.
After getting an earful from farmers and farm organizations - there were 1,700 comments, most of which called for the agency to leave the decisions to the various states - the U.S. DOT announced Wednesday (Aug. 10) that it has no intention of proposing new regulations governing the transport of agricultural products by producers. Reportedly the agency also heard from many elected officials, including 21 senators.
The agency said it was also releasing guidance designed to "make sure states clearly understand the common-sense exemptions that allow farmers, their employees, and their families to accomplish their day-to-day work and transport their products to market." (See sidebar.)
"We have no intention of instituting onerous regulations on the hardworking farmers who feed our country and fuel our economy," Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday. "Farmers deserve to know that reasonable, common-sense exemptions will continue to be consistently available to agricultural operations across the country and that's why we released this guidance."
After hearing from concerned farmers earlier this year, FMCSA initiated the review to make sure states don't "go overboard in enforcing regulations on agricultural operators," and to ensure consistent access to exemptions for farmers, said LaHood. No regulations will be proposed for any new safety requirements or changes to the rules governing the transport of agricultural products, farm machinery, or farm supplies to or from a farm, he added.
"We want to make it absolutely clear that farmers will not be subjected to new and impractical safety regulations," said U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari. "The farm community can be confident that states will continue to follow the regulatory exemptions for farmers that have always worked so well."
After receiving the 1,700 comments from the agricultural community and members of Congress, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said, "We want to make crystal clear that we are not imposing any new regulations." The deadline to submit comments was extended until Aug. 1.
Earlier this year, farm groups came to FMCSA with concerns that some states might not allow exemptions to CDL requirements for certain farm operations using crop-share leasing; the agency agreed it was a "gray area." That led to the agency publishing its call for comments from the public and to the concern that many farmers and their organizations felt.
In June, Wisconsin Farm Bureau weighed in on three proposals from FMCSA that it said could negatively impact farmers' ability to transport crops and livestock. The farm group said it opposed any change in statute or regulatory authority that would reclassify farm equipment as Commercial Motor Vehicles - a move that would "lead to unnecessary regulatory burden and financial hardship to Wisconsin's farmers," said Karen Gefvert, director of governmental relations with Farm Bureau.
"It is unfounded on the premise of safety concerns that farm machinery owners and operators be federally mandated to acquire a CDL, display DOT numbers, register owner's or farm name, limit mileage, obtain a medical card for the driver or maintain hours of service records," wrote Gefvert in comments to the agency.
Farm Bureau urged the agency not to reclassify farm implements as commercial motor vehicles and asked that it continue to allow individual states to exempt farmers from CDL requirements.
States are "more knowledgeable about their individualized agricultural- and transportation-related issues," Gefvert added in her comments to the agency.
Farm Bureau also took issue with another DOT proposal that would have classified all agricultural commodities delivered to a processor as interstate commerce because of the potential for the crop to eventually leave the state. Farm Bureau argued that this change should not be made because a transaction between the farmer and the processor, located in the same state, is not an interstate transaction, nor should it be considered one.
Farm Bureau estimated that each farmer would have to pay $124 just for the CDL license, permit and test, and the time and cost of the behind-the-wheel training would run into several thousands dollars. Farm Bureau called the idea of reclassifying a farmer with a crop-share agreement as a for hire commercial carrier "overreaching and unnecessary."
Following LaHood's announcement that there would be no new regulations on farmers, Gefvert said it was "good news for Wisconsin's farmers." The process, that included the large input of public comments, "clarified a number of important safety and transportation issues for Wisconsin farmers."
Those included issues impacting CDL requirements and interstate commerce, she said. "The common-sense exemptions on the use of implements of husbandry that have worked in Wisconsin and many other states will now be able to continue," she said.