Tractors lumbering down country roads are as common as deer in rural Montana, but the federal government wants to place new driving regulations on farmers and ranchers.
"It's a huge deal for us," said John Youngberg of the Montana Farm Bureau. After years of allowing state governments to waive commercial driver's license requirements for farmers hauling crops or driving farm equipment on public roads, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is poised to do away with the exceptions.
Regulators are suggesting that all wheat shipments be considered interstate, even when farmers making short hauls to local grain elevators aren't crossing state lines. The change would make commercial driver's licenses — and all the log books and medical requirements that go with them — a necessity for farmers. Some might not qualify.
The licenses would also be required of farmers driving farm equipment down public roads. Farmers hauling grain for a neighbor or landlord would be considered commercial drivers hauling for someone else.
Ranchers hauling livestock in trailers as small as 16 feet would also be subject to the new rules.
But before finalizing the proposed changes, FMCSA is accepting public comment. It originally allowed 30 days for public input last May. Then 18 U.S. senators prodded by farm groups asked that the public be given more time. Comments are now being taken until Aug. 1.
In a cautionary letter, Rep. Dennny Rehberg, R-Mont., told FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro to drop the regulations.
"Under your proposal, tractors, combines and pickup trucks hauling trailers would be regulated as commercial vehicles," Rehberg wrote. "Producers who operate these vehicles would be required to obtain commercial driver's licenses, medical cards and log their hours as if they were long-haul truck drivers."
Traditionally, farmers driving farm machinery have been exempt from commercial driver's licenses, as have farmers hauling wheat, provided they didn't cross state lines and traveled no farther than 150 air miles to the elevator.
"When you haul a commodity 150 miles, it just doesn't make sense to have a commercial driver's license," Youngberg said.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says it wants to make sure federal safety regulations are being carried out uniformly across the nation. According to FMCSA, some states have been asking the administration to clarify rules on grain trucking, farm equipment and trucking for someone else. The reasons behind those questions are numerous.
Dana Peterson, National Association of Wheat Growers executive officer, said farm equipment on public roads has become an issue in urban areas, while the other two trucking issues have been sticking points with FMCSA.
"That's been the interpretation of the agency for several years now," Peterson said of the interstate rule for grain. "But it hasn't been interpreted that way in all the states."
FMCSA argues that because grain will ultimately be shipped out of state, it should be regulated as an interstate product at every transportation step. Treated as a product destined to cross state lines, grain becomes federally regulated under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.
If a farmer's trip to the local elevator is viewed as an intrastate transaction, then public safety becomes the main issue and the state has final say. Officials with the Montana Department of Transportation and Montana Department of Agriculture confirmed last week that they have not responded to federal requests for public comment about the proposed changes.
The argument that grain ultimately leaves the state seems to have Montana in mind. Roughly 80 percent of Montana wheat is shipped to other countries, said Lola Raska, of the Montana Grain Growers Association. However, once farmers unload their trucks at the local elevator and collect payment, their end of the business transaction is over.
In Montana, the conflicts between federal and state handling of farm freight have been minimal. That hasn't been the case in states where commodities cross state lines more often.
In Oregon, farmers along the Columbia River often raise crops on the Washington side of the river as well. Farmers there have similar business arrangements in Idaho, said Shawn Cleave, government affairs specialist with the Oregon Farm Bureau. Crossing the state line has required farmers there to get commercial licenses, or at least that's what the Oregon Farm Bureau has encouraged them to do.
The bigger issue in the federal proposal is whether commercial driver's licenses are required for farmers in crop-sharing agreements involving leased farmland where everyone has a stake in the crop's sale.
Oregon's farmers are getting older. Their average age is 60, just slightly older than Montana's average farmer. As those farmers get older, it becomes more likely that they'll partner with younger farmers to get crops on their land. Commercial driver's licenses are likely to be a must for the younger farmers in the partnership, Cleave said.