In some cases, farmer Luke Brubaker prefers to do field work at night.
“Sometimes, we got to work at night for ground conditions and for harvest,” he said.
And he doesn’t have to worry about traffic, as most people are asleep in bed when he and his employees are combining corn or working the fields.
“It’s a much better time to be on the road,” he said.
But driving a farm implement on the road between fields at night has always been a gamble for Brubaker and many other farmers in Pennsylvania. That’s because it’s against the law to do so.
Three bills recently passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature would change that.
The bills passed during an abbreviated legislative session, which ended Oct. 17.
Senate Bill 390, sponsored by Sen. Mike Brubaker, who represents parts of Lancaster County, would allow farmers to drive implements up to 14 feet 6 inches wide on roads and allow them to travel as far as 50 miles between farms during the day or at night.
Two accompanying House bills address farm vehicles used exclusively for forage or vegetable crops, along with allowing them on the road at night, but only during the harvest season, which is defined as May 20 to Oct. 15.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed the House bills Thursday morning, and the Senate bill was expected to be signed at a later date. The laws will go into effect 60 days after signing.
Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said the bills address two longstanding problems with current farm transportation laws — that farmers are driving larger implements than ever before, and many find it more convenient and safer to do field work at night.
“Generally speaking, the equipment itself is larger and wider, even when you bring it together and attach it and move it on the road, it still is wider than what we’re talking about 30 years ago,” O’Neill said.
By allowing farmers to go up to 50 miles between farms instead of the 25 miles currently on the books, O’Neill said the bill also recognizes that farmers, unable to get more land close to home, often lease acreage in another part of a county or in another county altogether and might want to use the same piece of equipment for those fields.
“Twenty five to 50 miles can make a real difference in these times because many (farmers) are renting land all over the place,” he said.
But the bills also come with new safety measures and restrictions for night travel.
Any implement wider than 14 feet 6 inches and up to 16 feet wide would be required to have rotating safety lights and a pilot vehicle accompanying it along the road. If traveling at night, an implement could only go up to 25 miles between farms.
The average width of a planter or combine on Luke Brubaker’s farm, he said, is between 10 and 11 feet wide, with some as wide as 12 feet.
He supports the pilot vehicle provision, but he added that it could affect a lot of farmers he knows since many still operate older six-row corn planters that are actually wider than 15 feet and can’t be folded in to drive on a road.
Newer 12-row corn planters can be folded in to drive on a road and often range between 11 and 12 feet wide.
O’Neill said many farmers take these safety precautions already and they should consider installing safety lights or getting a pilot vehicle as a cost of doing business.
Jeff Stoltzfus, adult ag educator with the Eastern Lancaster County School District, said he hopes the bills will make it safer for farmers to be on the road.
“At least now, they will have a legal standing on the road. Hopefully it will bring safety measures as well,” Stoltzfus said.
Having seen two fatal accidents since 2010 involving farm implements, Stoltzfus said he’s always been surprised at the previous lack of lighting and other safety requirements for implements on the road.
“Nobody wants to be involved in those situations. That’s when I realized the liability risks farms are under, just by having a combine on the road. You are liable for any accidents that happen, regardless of fault,” he said.
Don Hoover, president of Binkley & Hurst, said modern implements already come equipped with safety beacons, marker lights and advanced braking systems, and that machine manufacturers have made implements better capable of traveling narrow roads, such as those often found in Pennsylvania. “They are safer today, by far, than what they were 25 or 30 years ago. A lot of tractors run faster with the traffic,” Hoover said.
“The huge impact for farmers is that they will begin to be able to do legally what they’ve been forced to do illegally, as the size of farm equipment continues to evolve and get larger, and thus they found themselves in violation of a lot of guidelines out there,” he said.