COMMENTARY-Farm-permit driving still key for families

When I was growing up in northwestern Kansas, it seemed like any good farm boy or girl began driving as soon as they could see over the steering wheel of the family pickup truck.

My uncle owned one of the local implement dealerships, and I drove a Massey tractor in the county parade when I was 6 years old. Uncle Joe gave me a lesson in the parking lot and I practiced for about a half hour each day for a week before the parade.

By the time I was 11 years old, I was spending the days with my dad in the fields during the summer months. I’d begin work with him in the early morning and shut off the tractor when the sun went down. I drove many a mile on the sand roads of Sheridan County, driving to and from our wheat, milo and corn fields.

But times change. Society changes. Our laws change too.

The rural landscape is not the same. Since I left my rural roots and moved to the eastern part of Kansas, several new generations have taken to our state’s rural and urban roads. There are more drivers and vehicles on the road too. Trucks have increased in size and passenger vehicles have become safer.

Safety and driver’s education has also evolved during the last 30 to 40 years-still there is always room for improvement. And while things have changed-some things remain the same. There will always be a need for youngsters to help their parents on the farm. Much of this work involves driving.

Fourteen-year-old Kelsey Harris of rural Jackson County has been helping on the farm for nearly a full year. She is the third of three daughters and plays an integral part in keeping the farming operation running.

Her parents, Butch and Dori Harris, operate a diversified, family farming operation. Like many other Kansas farms, the Harris operation is not big enough to keep full-time hired help and they say they couldn’t run their farm and cow-calf business without the girls’ help.

Providing a helping hand, Kelsey assists her parents daily. Like her sisters before her, when Kelsey turned 14 and could legally drive, she began feeding cattle, taking cattle to the veterinarian, hauling grain, picking up machinery parts-whatever needed to be done.

Living 20 miles from school, it is essential for the girls to drive themselves. They often combine their trips home at the end of the day to run errands and pick up supplies for the farm.

It would have been impossible for her parents to drive their three daughters to all of the school activities and still keep up with the farming operation.

“I really don’t know how we’d get all the things done we need to around here without the girls,” Butch says. “I guess we won’t really know what a contribution they’ve made until they’re gone.”

Like farm families across Kansas, the Harris family believes it is key to continue to allow 14-year-olds to drive with the farm permit. They realize some of the recent concerns about youngsters driving is a safety issue geared to reduce the number of fatalities and crashes involving teens.

Both Dori and Butch believe a wide-open, less congested countryside, where their daughters learned to drive, may be a real asset when it comes to their driving skills.

“Our daughters could begin driving slowly, and over a period of time, hone their driving skills as well as develop their confidence behind the wheel,” Dori says. “Out here in the country, they didn’t have the traffic pushing them, and it’s a more relaxed environment.”

No question about it, those in production agriculture, like the Harris family, support maintaining the farm permit for 14-year-olds who live and work on the farm and in this vital industry.

John Schlageck is managing editor of “Kansas Living,” a quarterly magazine dedicated to rural life in Kansas.

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