A proposed rule from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) would impose severe hardships on agriculture custom harvesters and others who use seasonal labor to transport equipment, crops and other materials from field to field, from field to elevator or across state lines, says a Texas custom harvest company owner.

The proposed rule would require truck drivers seeking to obtain commercial drivers licenses (CDLs) to complete both classroom and behind-the-wheel training from an accredited educational program or institution.

“Beginning three years after the effective date of a final rule, all applicants for a CDL or upgraded CDL would be required to provide a valid certificate from a truck driving program or institution accredited by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation,” according to a FMCSA document.

Class “A” CDL drivers (tractor trailers) would need 76 hours of classroom instruction and 44 hours of behind-the-wheel training. Class “B” drivers (large box or van trucks) or Class “C” CDLs (hazardous materials or certain passenger-carrying vehicles) would need 58 classroom hours and 32 hours behind-the-wheel.

To comply with the rule, custom harvest companies would have to hire seasonal labor as much as two months prior to harvest season at an added cost of up to $8,000 per driver, says Tony Rattei, a custom harvester in Seminole, Texas, and a director for U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc.

Rattei, in a letter to the FMCSA, said custom harvest companies currently have an exemption from some driver qualification rules. “I would ask FMCSA to use wording similar to our 391.2 exemption when identifying certain farm related service industry drivers,” he said.

He recommends the exemption specifically state that for farm custom operation the proposed rules not apply to a driver who drives a commercial motor vehicle controlled and operated by a person engaged in custom harvesting operations, if the commercial motor vehicle is used to:

• Transport farm machinery, supplies or both to or from a farm for custom harvesting operations on a farm; and transport farm machinery from one farm to another farm across state lines; or,

• Transport custom harvested crops to storage or market.”

Rattei offers several reasons for an exemption.

“Custom harvesters hire and train seasonal CDL drivers. Most drivers hired do not have a CDL, so the custom harvester helps the driver obtain a CDL and the custom harvester pays all expenses and training. If this proposed rule does not include a specific exemption for custom harvesters, the custom harvesters would have to hire seasonal drivers two months before they need them to comply with the FMCSA proposed rules and the cost could be $8,000 per driver.”

He said training expenses would be borne by the custom harvester.

“Because most of the entry level drivers (U.S. employees) do not have enough funds to obtain a Drivers Training Certificate, most of the U.S. employees a custom harvester hires need an advance on wages just to get to the job site.

“After the U.S. custom harvester pays for the training of entry level U.S. drivers, and pays all expenses to obtain a CDL, approximately 50 percent of the entry level U.S. drivers will quit custom harvesters and go to work for trucking companies, which are not seasonal,” Rattei said.

And that’s just for U.S. employees. The problems increase with immigrant labor. “Some of the drivers are H2-A temporary workers from a foreign country and the custom harvester helps them obtain a non-resident CDL, good only for the length of their work visa, normally six to eleven months,” he says.

A custom harvester has to pay plane fare to the U.S. and back for H2-A hires. “They also have to sign a contract that guarantees their wages. If we have to hire H2-A workers two months before needed and are forced to comply with the FMCSA proposal it could cost $10,000 for each H2-A worker.” Even though most H2-A workers already have CDLs from a foreign jurisdiction, they still must obtain a non-resident CDL. “Even H2-A workers from Mexico have to obtain a U.S. CDL because the insurance industry in the United States will not insure a Mexican driver who has a Mexican CDL. The U.S. insurance companies do not trust the Mexican CDL licensing agency.”

Rattei says the custom harvester industry safety record also should encourage an exemption. “Custom harvester trucks are used less than 20,000 miles per year on public roads, so the accident rate is low because of limited exposure.”

He says loads are typically hauled less than 30 miles, “except when moving equipment across state lines,” from farm to farm.

“They are always under direct supervision of the custom harvester.”

Rattei says the effect of the rule would be far reaching. Custom harvesters harvest 50 percent of the nation’s wheat crop, 25 percent of the feed corn, 50 percent of corn silage and 25 percent of the nation’s cotton crop. They also harvest a good percentage of U.S. peanut production.

“If the FMCSA proposed rule does not have a specific exemption for custom harvesters, most will not be able to afford to obtain a CDL for their truck drivers and will be forced out of business.”

Jim Baker, a member of the USCH legislative committee, said the organization is trying to inform other associations about the proposed rules. “People don’t know what this rule will do. Even school districts will be affected,” he said. “Bus drivers will have to take the training. And it’s hard enough already to find school bus drivers.”

He said implement dealers, vegetable producers and others who haul goods on trucks will have to take the training, which he says is not as good as training custom harvest operators provide.

“Going to these schools will not necessarily make them better drivers.”

Baker said he’s talked to legislators, faxed information to them and continues to alert them to the issue.

“But I’m not sure they can do anything. This is not an issue that has come up for a vote.”

Rattei encouraged other custom harvesters to contact FMCSA to express their views on the issue. Instructions for comments are available at www.regulations.gov. Use docket number FMCSA-2007-27748. Public comment period extends through May 23.

email: rsmith@farmpress.com