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Changing Opinions Make Harvest An Ordeal For Farmers On The Road

Sarah Fentem

Many roads in Indiana were originally known as “farm-to-market” highways—their primary purpose was to transport crops to city centers. That designation has been lost to history and now for farmers, something as short as a three-mile drive can be an ordeal.

During fall in America’s heartland, a person is almost guaranteed to see a combine.

Sometimes they’re at the front of a long line on the highway, with cars stretching out behind.

Or there will be one off to the side of the road, working late into the night, the machine’s headlight throwing a bright white beam across a dark, black field.

Up close, a combine’s size is striking, they’re much bigger than they looks from the road.

Alan Kemper, Lafayette-based farmer, has a combine the size of a small house. On a recent morning, he’s heading out on U.S. 52 to a field near Stockwell to harvest corn.

There’s nothing rustic about modern farm equipment. The cab of a combine harvester resembles the cockpit of an airplane. It’s temperature-controlled, with a heated drivers’ seat, and everything is digitized. The floor-to-ceiling window in the front gives the impression of being inside a gerbil wheel.

Kemper’s family has been farming for more than a century. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat and also raises livestock. He’s speaks in generalities when it comes to describing where he farms, declining to give the exact size of his operation (not uncommon among farmers), but says it’s a medium-to-large sized one, on multiple properties and spread out across the county.

“We go eight miles up that way, we go about eight miles west,” he says, as he drives his Case harvester down a small road connected to the highway. “We go right into Lafayette city limits on a couple of our fields, so we’re actually harvesting right outside Payless, we go down Veteran’s Memorial Parkway with this thing.”

Suffice it to say the land stretches across many parts of the county, and it takes A LOT of driving to cover it all – so he sees a lot of angry and impatient drivers out on the road.

“They’ll stop and give you a few gestures you don’t use in church, or some verbiage you don’t use in church,” Kemper says.  “And it’s like, I can’t do a lot about this.”

“It’s not anything that we can do anything about, you know?,” says Mike Macy, who has worked with Kemper for years. “Combines are only gonna run so fast.”

“People have moved to the country, wanting the country life,” he says. “Yet they don’t understand farm equipment -- loaded trucks that kind of thing -- they move slow out here on these country roads." 

Macy says people ask him all the time why tractors can’t just bypass highways and drive through fields. He says farms are spread out over multiple properties, meaning the heavy equipment would have to drive over other people’s land. And second, certain debris, such as beer bottles tossed in fields, can seriously harm expensive farm equipment.

“Those bottles can cost thousands of dollars to tires. And where you spend $150 or $200 on one, they spend thousands.”

Macy’s not kidding—a harvester like the one Kemper uses costs almost $400,00, the same amount as a brand-new Lamborghini Aventador.

But even on the road there are problems. Something as small as a mailbox or a telephone pole can bring an entire day to a standstill. For example, if a car is parked directly across from a mailbox, there’s no way for a combine to fit through.

“It’s a difficult task to deliver the world’s food supply and a lot of it is coming from Indiana,” says Indiana Department of Agriculture Director Ted McKinney. McKinney says too many drivers become impatient – and drive more dangerously – when they’re behind a tractor or a combine and want to pass.

“If I had to summarize all of this for all parties involved, it would come down to three words: patience, patience, patience,” he says.

Purdue ag safety specialist Bill Field says today, there are fewer farmers working larger amounts of land, which means they have to travel on highways more frequently to reach different properties. Additionally, Field says fewer farmers means fewer people feel sympathetic to ag in the same way they used to:

“I think there was a generally accepted provision that farmers needed to use the highway, and that a person win a car should be alert and be aware of that piece of equipment.”

He says drivers these days are less likely to have a friend or family member working the harvest—so people are less patient than they were in the past. And though it may not play a role, that change correlates with an increase in traffic accidents involving farm implements.

According to the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, last year there were 415 accidents involving farm equipment on Indiana roads. That’s 27 percent more than the year before, and 43 percent above the 20-year average. Six people died in last year’s crashes -- a little higher than the average of four deaths annually.

Back on the road, Kemper knows he can’t take any chances. He turns off 52 and is face-to-face with a small sedan. He pulls over to the side of the road and cars inch past at ground level.

“We’re letting everyone around us, we’re just going to be dead stopping for safety and not trying to push the envelope,” he says, between calls keeping tabs on Macy, who drove in front to scope out the traffic situation ahead. He’ll spend the next 10 hours high up in his heated seat, combing through rows of corn. But this evening, Kemper and his team will be back on the roads again.

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