Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick
Cedar Springs — Brent Willett doesn’t get much sleep the night before “Drive Your Tractor to School Day” at Cedar Springs High School.
“We have a safety meeting the night before, so the kids know what to do and what to expect; we get a police escort; I talk to parents ahead of time about their kid operating this large piece of equipment on the roads,” said the high school agriculture and biology teacher. “But I’m still the teacher, you know? There’s a lot to think about.”
Fortunately for Willett, and all of the students driving (or pushing) farm equipment to school, the morning of the tractor parade last week dawned bright, sunny and, yes, safely.
“Drive Your Tractor to School Day” resumed in Cedar Springs in 2011 after a many-year hiatus. What began as more of a fun activity has now morphed into a week of education around issues of farm safety and personal responsibility when it comes to sharing the road with farmers.
The day ends with the grand finale of a tractor parade through the Cedar Springs campus, with elementary students lining the roads to enjoy the spectacle.
“Fall is harvest time, and that really impacts our community,” said Willett, who also serves as the high school’s FFA advisor. “We have these combines and semis and all these (pieces of equipment) that usually aren’t on the road that you’re going to encounter, especially on rural roads. During those times, we want the person driving the car to get home safe and we want the farmer to get home safe.
“Ninety-seven percent of our farms are still family-owned, even the really large-scale ones. We still have family members working on these farms. And so when there’s an accident, it usually impacts the community in some way.”
Sharing the road safely
Safety tips and laws for drivers in rural or farming communities
• Following a tractor for one mile at an average speed of 20 miles per hour takes the same amount of time as sitting at a stoplight for one turn cycle.
• In Michigan, “No Passing Zones” indicated by double yellow or solid yellow lines on the road also apply to farm equipment. Drivers can be ticketed if they attempt to pass farm equipment in these zones.
• If you are driving 55 mph and come upon a tractor that’s moving 15 mph, it only takes five seconds to close a gap the length of a football field between you and the tractor.
Source: Michigan State Police, Traffic Safety Division
In the week leading up to the big parade, students in Willett’s agriculture and natural resources classes studied things like chainsaw safety, general farm equipment safety and silo safety. Willett also used the week to share safety information on the FFA’s Facebook page and teach the high school driving population some laws of the road when it comes to sharing space with farm equipment.
The best advice he can offer is to “take a deep breath when you’re following a tractor,” Willett said. “That guy or gal is working for you, whether they’re feeding an animal or producing a crop that’s going to be direct-consumed — it’s coming back to you eventually. So just take the five minutes and take a deep breath.”
Sophomore Ethan Hanes has been driving in the tractor parade since he was in eighth grade, and looks forward to the event every year. While he’s never been in an accident on the job, he’s also seen firsthand the need for better education around equipment safety in rural areas.
“Last year I learned a lot of people don’t care about you or your safety when they’re in their cars,” said Ethan, who works on a local farm and drove his father’s Massey Ferguson 2604 to school and in the parade. “They just want to get to work or get around you as fast as they can.
“It’s kind of frustrating knowing that I’m a teenager and you don’t care enough to slow down for two minutes and just wait till you can get around, or have me pull over and let you go by. … I’m hoping (the tractor safety week) helps them think about younger people in the industry some more, and that they’re trying to be a little more safe and considerate to everyone who’s on the roadways.”
This year’s parade featured more than 40 pieces of farm equipment — a new record for the event — with everything from a combine to lawn mowers. Most of the drivers were Cedar Springs students, with a few FFA alumni and community guests.
For Ethan, the parade is a highlight of his week, if not the school year.
“It’s really a good time, with the little kids all waving and smiling and excited to be out there to see all the big equipment go by,” he said. “And if I can honk the horn for them, they really like that. I just like to see the kids smile and I always look forward to it every year.”