August 2008
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Change in State Transportation Law Gives Farmers Break

By Alvin Benn
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State Trooper Sgt. Tracy Nelson (left), Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks (center) and Lt. Col. F.A. Bingham have pledged to do their part in explaining a new motor carrier law to farmers around the state.

Public meetings are being held around the state to inform Alabama farmers about an important change in transporting their goods to market.

It’s not how they do it—it’s a break they’re getting, thanks to a coalition of agricultural groups concerned about enforcement of a confusing 1989 law.

Because of the cooperative effort between the coalition and the Alabama Department of Public Safety (ADPS), farmers won’t have to worry about being mistaken for commercial truck drivers and given tickets.

Helping to lead the way was Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC) which voiced its concerns about a complex law that, if fully implemented, would have been costly to those simply taking their cattle, cotton and produce to the market.

   Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) Commissioner Ron Sparks said if the "old" law had been enforced, "small farmers in loaded vehicles weighing less than 26,001 pounds would have had to jump through the same hoops as someone driving one of those huge 18-wheelers."

Sparks said the 1989 law was not fully enforced, probably due to manpower shortages in ADPS. But, he added, once federal officials ordered it be done "or else," things began to change.

"Basically, those in charge of public safety were told that if they didn’t start enforcing the law as it had been written, they stood to lose more than $3 million in federal funds," Sparks said, during an interview with the Cooperative Farming News.

Most of that money, he said, was used to buy new trooper vehicles and other needed equipment.

"So, with a stroke of a pen, it was decided to begin enforcing the 1989 law," added Sparks. "That’s when we got together to do something about it."

In addition to AFC and ADAI, other groups in the coalition included Alabama Farmers Federation (Alfa), Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, Alabama Poultry and Egg Association, Alabama Department of Revenue and ADPS.

The result was a new law signed on May 13 by Gov. Bob Riley. It involves exemptions and exceptions and is somewhat confusing.

That is why meetings have started and will continue to be held throughout the state between now and the end of the year.

The first two, sponsored by the Alfa, were held in July in Cullman and Baldwin counties. Other groups will be holding their own meetings with farmers in the coming months.

AFC’s CEO, Tommy Paulk praised the efforts of others involved when he said, "We are grateful we have in Ron Sparks a Commissioner of Agriculture who will go to the mat for Alabama’s farmers. Commissioner Sparks led the effort to get this law passed, bringing together groups from all over the state, including the Alabama Department of Public Safety, led by Col. Chris Murphy, who has wisely taken a common sense approach to this important issue. We are also grateful to Alfa president Jerry Newby and the entire Alfa organization for their tireless efforts on behalf of this legislation."

A key part of the law signed by Riley raises the exemption of farm vehicles hauling products from 10,001 pounds to 26,001 pounds.

What it does is eliminate the prospect of requiring Alabama farmers to meet specific Federal Motor Carrier Act regulations.

"A nice-sized Ford F150 hauling a trailer could easily weigh more than 10,000 pounds and farmers could wind-up being ticketed," said Jeffery Webb, legal advisor to the ADAI. "That’s why the exemption is so important."

Another helpful provision for farmers involves a 150-mile "safety zone" for hauling goods.

Webb said farmers taking their goods to market within that 150-mile area would not be considered the same as large tractor-trailers are now.

"A loaded grain truck can weigh much more than 26,000 pounds," said Webb. "Under the new law signed by the governor, if the haul is 150 miles or less, Alabama farmers would be exempt from the federal requirements."

The exception, Webb said, would involve farmers who might hire commercial truckers to take their goods to market. If that happens, the other carrier would fall under the federal requirements.

Webb pointed out most silos are closer to farms than 150 miles. He also cited that longer than usual hauls only occur about two or three times a year during specific harvesting seasons.

Sparks had special praise for Col. Chris Murphy, the new director of ADPS. Sparks said Murphy "went out of his way" to work with agriculture to make sure farmers "get a break."

The agriculture commissioner emphasized that concern over trucker safety remains one of his priorities.

"We want safety on our highways, too," said Sparks. "Farmers need to know it is important to have their truck blinkers working properly, to have fire extinguishers, proper brakes and so much more."

Sparks was pleased with the new law because "we don’t want to put mom, pop and granddad into a bind if they’re just hauling goats to a sale."

"We want our highways to be safe, but farmers shouldn’t be required to have a special medical card, a log book showing how many miles they’ve driven, how much sleep they’ve had or other things like that when they’re just making a short, routine trip," remarked Sparks.

Webb agreed, saying enforcement of more stringent Federal Motor Carrier Act requirements "would turn anybody who is hauling anything into a truck driver."

"We wanted to avoid that," said Webb. "Our farmers shouldn’t have to have a commercial driver’s license, a health card in their wallet or a Department of Transportation number posted on their vehicle."

Alfa meetings set for this month to discuss the new law will be held on Aug. 9 at 3:15 p.m. at the Cahaba Grand Conference in Birmingham; Aug. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at the Perry Recreation Center in Ozark and Aug. 12 at 5:30 p.m. at Alfa’s home office auditorium in Montgomery.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.