MCBAIN — Most roads weren’t designed with modern agricultural practices in mind.
While this might not be obvious from appearances, road commission officials say it makes a difference when a 100-ton manure spreader tries to inch along the side of a busy highway or bridge intended for vehicles a fraction of their size and weight.
Luke Houlton, manager of the Osceola County Road Commission, said in most cases, local roads weren’t designed by a team of engineers who sat down and considered everything they would be used for; instead, they were built up gradually over many years without too much forethought into how they may eventually be used.
When most people think about farmers using public roadways, they think about the classic image of a T-shaped John Deere tractor lumbering slowly down the road ... and this was the reality for many years, Houlton said.
Today, however, as farms have expanded in size — along with their equipment — roads haven’t been able to keep up.
“Their equipment outpaced and outgrew our road systems,‘ Houlton said.
This becomes apparent when thinking about the width of roads: most vehicles typically don’t exceed 8 feet in width while Houlton said some farm machinery can easily reach 14-15 feet in width.
In order to build roads large enough to handle some of the equipment farmers use, it can require the addition of several feet of pavement on each side.
Having a firm edge on the road is important, Houlton said, because heavy farming equipment can chip away at brittle edges and begin affecting the entire structural integrity of the roadway.
It might seem simple enough just to add a few feet to the edges to prevent this from happening but adding road surface equals adding significant cost to any project, Houlton said.
Missaukee County Road Commission Manager Kelly Bekken said there are parts of his county where large farm vehicles have to travel 25 miles one way in order to drop off their cargo.
As farms have expanded in size, so too have the distances farmers are required to haul certain commodities — notably manure in Missaukee County.
Bekken agreed with Houlton that maintaining roadways that experience heavy agricultural use doesn’t come without costs. The issue he runs into is similar to that of many other road commissions: in order to build and maintain roads sturdy enough to be used in this way costs more money than they have.
“We want to make routes that will hold up and be safe for these guys,‘ Bekken said. “It’s not easy to do.‘
Far from being the source of the problem, Bekken said farmers are always trying to think of ways to alleviate the stress their vehicles put on the roadways but in many cases, there’s not much they can do.
Jodi DeHate, Missaukee Conservation District MAEAP technician, said it’s true farms are hauling manure further away than they used to.
“It’s a good thing for the environment that the farms are hauling to fields not near the farm,‘ DeHate said. “That means they are utilizing the nutrients in manure over the entire farm ground they manage. Some areas downstate have a custom applicator that trucks the manure in tankers on a semi and offloads to a tractor with a drag line/spreader attachment in the field. Someone tried that here locally, but he needed more semis to keep up.‘
Bekken said transporting products by truck rather than large farm equipment might make a positive difference on the roads. He also acknowledged this could place yet another financial burden on farmers, many of whom already are struggling to get by.
Houlton said he thinks the situation could be improved if the playing field was leveled a little bit.
For instance, if some of the heavier farm machinery were no longer allowed on public roads — which would mean more registered trucks driven by licensed drivers on the roadway — and farmers had to pay a fuel tax like all other drivers, Houlton said it would pump more money into road maintenance efforts.
Houlton said this could lead to farmers raising prices on their products to make up for the increase in operational costs but paying more at the grocery store is a tradeoff he’d consider if that meant better roads.
“The issue isn’t with farmers, it’s with those who made the rules,‘ Houlton said. “What I’d like is for everyone to play by the same rules.‘
DeHate, with the Missaukee Conservation District, said it’s not as simple as that.
“Farmers take whatever prices they get from their buyers,‘ DeHate said. “And for things like milk, you’re darn lucky to have a market to sell to at this point. Some farms in other states lost their market and had to shut down as in the farm is no longer producing milk. The farmer foots more of the bill and doesn’t ease any of the pain for producing food at a loss or break even prices. Consumers aren’t going to pay more for food if fuel prices rise at the farm level. The farmer does.‘
Craig Anderson, manager of the Agriculture, Labor and Safety Services program at Michigan Farm Bureau, said figuring out ways of addressing the challenges posed by ag-related equipment on roadways built primarily for other types of vehicles is an issue that has been around for decades.
Anderson said the idea of using more trucks on roadways might not necessarily be a solution, as studies have shown they have the same — if not greater — impact on roads as larger farm equipment. He said this is because smaller trucks have to take more trips; it’s also because larger equipment uses specialized tires that spread the weight out over a wider area than trucks.
Taking all road uses into consideration, Anderson said commercial trucking activity in general has far more of an effect on roads than farm practices. That isn’t to say some areas don’t have particular challenges when it comes to agriculture uses, he said.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that isn’t the case,‘ Anderson said. “Identifying those areas of particular need is important. Some of those roads had low residential burdens (when they were built) and haven’t had an opportunity to be updated. There are a lot of rural roads out there that are far exceeding their functional lifespan. That’s where the challenge comes in. It comes down to a function of funding.‘