by Susan Mikula Campbell
A farm wagon loaded with hay and pulled by a tractor is traveling slowly down Shawnee Road. A car with an driver on his way to work or a student on his way to Niagara County Community College comes up behind.
What usually happens? Horns blaring, the impatient drivers roar out to pass sometimes as many as four or five other cars backed up behind the farm vehicle, putting not only their own lives in danger, but those of the farmer and the other drivers.
"They yell, they swear, they tell you to get off the road," said Shawnee Road farmer Rob Koithan. "Why it's almost like living on the boulevard. Every time you drive on the road, you take your life in your hands."
Development in recent years has resulted in Wheatfield no longer living up to its serene name.
"It's a sad situation," said Lockport Road farmer Nelson Haseley, noting that people pass on both the right and left side of farm vehicles, with no thought to whether that tractor might be making a turn. "I guess we've got the city moving into the country. People in the city have no conception of what the triangle sign on a piece of equipment means."
Both Haseley and Koithan operate farms that have been in their families for generations. Nowadays, they're reluctant to have their wives or children operate farm vehicles on the road - there have been too many close calls. Road and sewer work in the area is only making the problem worse.
The danger is real. Local farmers have plenty of examples of close calls. Their biggest fear is someone might be killed. Just this past July, in Benton, N.Y., a man was charged with homicide and drunken driving after his vehicle sideswiped a van while passing a tractor in the agricultural community south of Rochester. Five people in the van were killed. Ironically, those in the van were Amish farmers visiting Mennonite farms in the area with Cornell Cooperative Extension employees.
"As a member of the Wheatfield Agricultural Preservation Focus Group, I was saddened to read of another accident involving a farm vehicle, this time near the Finger Lakes," said Kristine Taylor of Wheatfield. "To hear that five people lost their lives and several others were injured, due to a car passing a tractor, is shocking."
"It is our hope that members of our community will appreciate the work our farmers do and drive patiently behind the farm vehicles as they move between farm and field," she added. "We hope that this type of accident can be avoided in our area."
It doesn't matter if the farm equipment carries the triangular slow moving vehicle sign or has flashing lights, drivers still won't wait the usually short distance the farm equipment has to travel and will cut off a tractor trying to make a turn, the farmers say.
A farmer hauling a load of hay can't really see the vehicles behind him, Haseley said. Also the width of the farm vehicles usually means the farmer can't pull over far enough to let cars pass.
"This road is like the New York State Thruway now. It's just unbelievable what goes on," Haseley said of Lockport Road. "The worst are the college kids; they'll try every trick in the book."
"Probably nine out of 10 cars will pass you with head-on traffic coming," Koithan said.
There's been times when his daughter has been stationed in the driveway to the farm to signal when it's safe to make a left hand turn. Once he had his wife follow the tractor in a pickup and when he came to the driveway to make a left, she pulled into the center of the road with four-way flashers on. Still, about the fifth car back from the tractor, passed everybody.
"If I hadn't looked, I would have turned right into him," Koithan said. When it comes to tangling with a big piece of farm equipment, he noted, "The car won't have a chance."
The farmers said even their milk hauler now tries to do most of his pickups during the night. Not too long ago, the milk hauler was backing into the Haseley driveway and a woman drove underneath the rig, smashing her car.
The state DOT has approved the town focus group's request to install farm vehicle signs near farms on state routes 62, 425 and 429, according to focus group chairman Karen Frieder. So far, the signs haven't been installed.
The farmers aren't sure the signs would make much of a difference.
"Putting a sign at the edge of the road, is that really going to help? Everybody is in a rush," Koithan said.
The number of farms is declining as more and more developers are buying up farmland and putting up houses. Koithan believes more needs to be done to encourage farmers to stay in business in the town and Niagara County. After all, the town is called Wheatfield.