Plea for help

Published 5:15 pm Friday, May 12, 2023

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GATESVILLE – Gates County officials wasted little time in sounding the alarm regarding a potential problem with broadband internet lines being installed too low across farm fields.

Two weeks after learning about the issue, which perhaps could be a hazard to county farmers, Gates County Manager Scott Sauer presented a letter for the board of commissioners to review and approve before passing it on to Steve Troxler, North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture.

In his letter to Troxler, Sauer noted that Gates County is proud to be part of North Carolina’s largest industry -agriculture. He referenced Gates County being home to 141 farms comprising 57,985 acres. And although the county is relatively small in size, it ranks 10th in cotton production statewide.

“The Gates County Board of Commissioners recently heard reports of many local farmers concerned about installation of broadband wires over agricultural lands that are ‘too darned low,’ interfering with farming operations during field preparation, planting crops and the harvest season given the large size of modern agricultural machinery,” Sauer wrote in his letter.

Sauer went on to note that today’s larger combines and pickers require at least 18 feet of operational height clearance, as compared to the National Electrical Safety Code, which requires 15 feet – 6 inches of clearance above the ground.

“Commissioner Troxler, the Gates County Board of Commissioners is seeking your leadership and support in bringing awareness to the regulatory conflict between modern farming practices utilizing larger, more efficient equipment and the national electrical safety codes which are more than 40 years old,” Sauer said in his letter.

The letter included the State Statute regulating the height of utility wires or cables over highways, as well as landscape visuals from the National Electric Safety Code, including one dealing with oversized vehicles (greater than 14 feet in height).

“Certainly, this issue should be front and center for all farmers across the State of North Carolina and we are seeking your support in raising these concerns to the appropriate decision makers. Commissioner Troxler, we are hopeful that with your guidance the issue of these broadband wires that are ‘too darned low’ can be addressed expeditiously and using common sense for the benefit of all farmers and agribusiness interests in North Carolina,” the letter concluded.

“We’re hopeful that this issue will be addressed, but we realize that it will take time to change the codes [as they relate to the height of the wires]” said Commission Chair Dr. Althea Riddick. “I encourage the commissioners sign off on the letter that Mr. Sauer has prepared.”

The letter was signed by all five members of the Gates County Board of Commissioners and mailed May 4 to Troxler.

The issue about the low lines vs. tall harvesting equipment first surfaced at the April 19 meeting of the Gates County Board of Commissioners. There, Erna Bright, a retired technician from CenturyLink who serves as the Chair of the county’s Broadband Task Force, told the commissioners that while tracking the local installation of fiber optic lines across the county, he noted the placement of the aerial fiber is too low on joint use poles in some locations.

He added that the low-hanging lines are more prevalent in farm fields where the fiber lines are strung across longer spans (between poles, 200 to 300 feet apart).

“That will cause a problem for our farmers,” Bright said.

However, Bright said that one contractor immediately cited a North Carolina General Statute regarding utility wires, which lists the minimum vertical clearance at 15 and one-half feet. That minimum height increases to 18 feet when a utility line crosses a state-maintained road.

“When there are poles in a farmer’s field, it seems like they [contractors] want to put [the lines] at whatever height they desire,” Bright noted during his presentation. “I have measured them as low as nine feet and 13 feet….very few at 15 and one-half feet. A million-dollar combine picking cotton won’t quite make it under that wire.”

Bright said upon asking the internet provider who is responsible if a fiber line is torn down by a piece of farming equipment, the answer was the operator/owner of the combine.

He noted the newer cotton combines are 18 and one-half feet in height.

“You can’t ask a farmer to leave the crop in the field, not harvest it at or near a 15.5 foot utility line; he’s leaving money in the field,” Bright remarked. “The Utilities Commission, the state, whoever, will need to make some changes to help us.”

Gates County Cooperative Extension Service Agricultural Agent Paul Smith concurred with Bright’s assessment of the problems facing local farmers due to the low height of the broadband lines.

Smith’s research showed that combines range in height of 15.5 feet to 17.5 feet. The newest cotton combines, he said, have a height of 17 feet, eight inches. Some, he added, will reach heights of 18 feet when they make turns at the end of the rows.

“These machines can’t get under these lines,” Smith said. “The farmers are having to call the electric company now to get them to raise up the lines or try to work around them. Some of these broadband lines, I’ve been told, are 40 inches below the electric lines.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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