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Farmers struggle with growing suburban traffic

June 3, 2018

Blaring car horns, dirty looks and the occasional middle finger are easy to deal with.

But when Steve Duke needs to travel local roads with his farm equipment, he's more concerned that an unaware or impatient driver will cause an accident.

"People will come at you at 50 mph, and by the time they get to us, they expect us to be out of their way. That's the mentality we face every day," he said.

Farmers are finishing up their plowing, planting and preparation for the upcoming growing season. They're moving large, slow equipment from field to field, and have no other choice but to travel the same roadways as smaller cars and trucks.

Area growers want to remind people that they don't want to be out on the roads any longer than they have to. They're not moving slowly to be an inconvenience to you; they simply have a job to do.

Patience and the willingness to share the road will allow both drivers and farmers to get where they're going safely.

"People just do not understand or realize, when we're pulling something down the road, we want to get to our destination safely and get off the road absolutely as quickly as possible," Duke said.

Between 2013 and 2016, 265 fatal accidents were reported across the U.S. involving farm equipment. Ten of those fatal accidents were reported in Indiana.

Every spring and fall, when farmers are most active working in their fields, state agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation and Indiana State Police work together on a campaign to raise awareness about farm equipment being on state and local roads.

Most of all, they preach patience.

"One of the things that we have published is to remind folks, maybe this time of year, if we're going somewhere, leave five to 10 minutes earlier," said Bruce Kettler, Indiana State Department of Agriculture director. "That way if you do encounter some farm equipment, and you have to go a little slower, leaving a little bit earlier really helps people to be patient and be more aware."

In much of Johnson County, areas that as recently as 10 years ago had been predominantly rural have seen an influx of development. That puts more drivers on roads that farmers rely on to get to their fields to work.

Duke and his family has farmed the land around White River Township since 1894. They now have more than 2,000 acres to tend to, stretching from Franklin to Mooresville.

The roads they've used for decades to reach their farm fields have become increasingly busy. People don't seem to be expecting that farm equipment will be on the same roads as they are, said Norman Duke, Steve's father.

"Our area has become suburbanized, and it's only going to get worse," he said.

On a recent afternoon, Steve Duke drove his field cultivator on Whiteland Road. The massive piece of machinery took up a large portion of the roadway, and he was constantly checking his mirrors, the road in front of him and intersections in anticipation.

When another car approaches him, he would find a place to get off the side of the road, letting people get by. Many drivers expect this on country roads, wait until he's pulled off and then pass with a wave.

Not everyone is so courteous, though.

"Most everyone is thankful, giving us a wave or a thumbs up. They appreciate us pulling over for them," Norman Duke said. "But then there's others that are in a big hurry."

Drivers zoom around him as he tries to take wide turns, even with his turn signals on. People try to pass on either side of the equipment.

One of the most frustrating occurrences is when Steve Duke can see a car about to pull out of their driveway, or stopped at an intersection. Instead of waiting 30 seconds until the tractor passes, they turn out, immediately causing a problem.

"They'll pull out, not even looking, with a piece of farm machinery not even 100 yards in front of them," he said. "All you have to do was wait a few seconds to let us go by."

Farmers realize that they have a responsibility on the roads, Steve Duke said.

The Dukes make sure their tractors and the equipment they're pulling have working lights, blinkers and turn signals. Indiana law requires farmers to display a red and orange triangle-shaped reflector, the nationally designated sign for a slow-moving vehicle, on their equipment.

Tractors, cultivators and other farm vehicles often travel at speeds no more than 25 mph, and that triangular sign warns oncoming drivers that their equipment is on the road.

If a farmer sees three or more cars lined up behind their equipment as they travel, the law states they should pull over in a safe location to let traffic pass.

And the farmers that he talks to all do that as quickly as possible, Steve Duke said.

"Unfortunately, when we're pulling something that basically is 16 feet wide and 15 feet tall, there's just not that many places to pull over because of telephone poles and mailboxes," he said.

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