Ronnie Mohr of Greenfield stands near the intersection of county roads 500E and 700N, showing how he and his team cut their crops when planting so close to the road. Mohr, whose brother was involved in a bad crash that was blamed on poor visibility because of high corn, wants to see farmers take more responsibility in keeping local roads safe. Staff photo by Tom Russo
GREENFIELD — Ronnie Mohr’s envisioned that crash a hundred times.
He wasn’t there that day, when a 17-year-old was killed after the pickup truck he was riding in collided with a piece of farm equipment. But his brother was there, has described it in painstaking detail. His brother was driving that crop-sprayer, couldn’t see the truck full of Eastern Hancock kids barreling toward him as he pulled into the intersection on a rural county road.
Ronnie Mohr, a Greenfield farmer, has that scene in mind as he lobbies local leaders to draft an ordinance requiring farmers to cut back their crops to ensure they don’t limit visibility on rural roadways. He’s spoken with members of the county’s board of commissioners, called up his representatives in the state Legislature and gave a presentation at an annual farmer’s convention this year reciting the same plea: Require farmers to take on a bigger role in making roadways safer.
Now, state Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, said he’s considering drafting legislation that would offer tax incentives to farmers who agree to cut back their cornstalks. After hearing from Mohr, he began working with the state’s legislative services agency to fine tune the details of the bill, he said.
Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, said he’s also mulled offering such legislation in the House, but penning the details of the bill — what the state will offer farmers who obliged and how tax incentives will work during years farmers don’t harvest corn — has been challenging.
Lawmakers have a few more days to file bills in order for them to be heard this year.
In the months before harvest, tall cornstalks can make it difficult for drivers to see safely around corners, leading some to edge out into intersections and into the path of oncoming traffic.
Joe Mohr told police that’s what happened on that afternoon in late July when he pulled out in front of the pickup truck carrying Riley Settergren and two of his friends.
Joe Mohr — who is supportive of his brother’s efforts but declined to comment further — told crash investigators even though the crop-sprayer he was driving set him high in the air, he couldn’t see the pickup truck as it headed toward him. The corn near the intersection was so tall, Joe Mohr told police, it created a sea of green for as far as he could see, enveloping the thin strip of roadway.
He inched out into the intersection, ready to check the east- and westbound traffic to his left and right. But it was too late.
The pickup truck, headed westbound on County Road 900N, collided with the crop-sprayer, which was heading south of County Road 750E.
Settergren lost his life in the crash that day. His two teenage friends were injured but recovered.
Every day, Ronnie Mohr wonders if something could have been done to prevent that accident. But he wants to do something — in Settergren’s memory — to keep crashes like it from happening again.
Jay Settergren, Riley’s father, noticed in the weeks leading up to the his son’s death that tall cornstalks were making it difficult to see when driving near his eastern Hancock County home. It happens every year in July, like clockwork, he said.
He’d warned his sons about it, to be careful behind the wheel, he said.
“Every year, it seems to be pushing a little closer to the road, trying to get that one more row of corn in,” Jay Settergren said.
He’s supportive of the Mohrs’ initiative. He’s spoken to a few farmer friends who say they’d be willing to follow whatever regulations are put in place.
For years, Ronnie Mohr has pushed his fellow farmers to trim their corn crops in a way that keeps the foliage from obstructing a driver’s view and make it easier for those driving on rural roads to spot oncoming cars. But there are no requirements in place.
Trimming a few feet off the tops of the corn stalks growing nearest an intersection – making each stalk shorter than the 12 feet it might otherwise stand — would help with visibility along rural roadways, Ronnie Mohr said.
It’s something he does in his own fields already, he said.
While state legislators mull a bill that would affect all of Indiana, the Mohrs want to see local officials take action in Hancock County.
The local ordinance the Mohrs seek would make the trimming necessary for all farmers at every corner of their fields that butts up to an intersection. Farmers who didn’t comply would face fines.
County officials say it’s difficult to keep record of how often tall cornstalks are to blame for traffic accidents.
An average of 100 crashes happen on rural Hancock County roads each year. Those involved have sometimes blamed their car crashes on some sort of vegetation obstructing their view, but it’s not often enough that officials have analyzed that data from accident reports, Hancock County Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Campbell said.
The county’s highway department already has the authority to do some trimming if crops are planted in the right of way, the thin strip of land that sits between the edge of the road and the farmer’s property line. But the process is time-consuming, officials said.
If corn stalks are too close to the road or if their foliage falls into a driver’s path, highway department personnel can request a farmer cut it back, said county engineer Gary Pool, who oversees the highway department.
But first, a county employee would have to spot a problem with the crop line or a resident would have to complain, Pool said. Then, there is a series of notices the county sends out, asking the farmer to cut back the crops. It’s only if the farmer doesn’t comply that the county can mow crops down, he said.
In the last two years, Pool’s employees have been called out nearly 150 times to trim trees, mow tall weeds and cut down cornstalks obstructing drivers’ vision or causing issues on county roads.
Having an ordinance on the books would give the practice some teeth: Hancock County sheriff’s deputies could fine farmers who haven’t trimmed their crops or kept the height restrictions, Ronnie Mohr said.
Conversations about a local ordinance have so far been informal, but local officials generally support the idea, commissioner John Jessup said.
Jessup represents the county’s northeastern township, where this year’s fatal accident occurred. He understands the Morh family’s position — it would be a sensible ordinance to put on the books, he added — but he wants to be sensitive to a family that’s still grieving as the process moves forward.
Ronnie Mohr believes farmers have a duty to look out for their neighbors in this way.
“I think we, as farmers, have a responsibility,” he said. “I just think we can make it safer out here.”